Tag Archives: charity

Book Review: Borders: A Very Short Introduction by Alexander Diener and Joshua Hagen

Having been thoroughly hooked by the Very Short Introductions, this was one that I just happened to glance across while I was browsing a local bookshop. I can’t say that the subject was one that I have ever had a particular interest in, though the fact that a whole book (albeit a brief one) could be devoted to it did somewhat pique my curiosity.

It has to be noted that the book is very modern; so modern, in fact that I fear it may be out of date before too long. I’ll come on to why a little later, but if you’re thinking of reading it, please do so sooner than later.

Given that the book is about borders, there is a certain irony that in dealing the subject, the authors have had to traverse a number of disciplines including geography, politics, religion and commerce. Thus, the borders between these disciplines become blurred slightly. Certainly, they are not as firmly delineated as one might think. Yet, that is almost exactly the point of the book. The authors are quick to point out that even though you might pick up a map or an atlas and view borders between nations, or between districts or neighbours on a street, the ink & paper are more rigid than the borders they represent. Disputes occur all the time, some which are more prominent than others.

In discussing this, the authors do of course touch on the thorny issues related to the borders between Israel and Palestine. Here, they do tiptoe around some of the issues, but they are not overlooked entirely or ignored.

In writing this very short review (I confess, I finished it nearly 2 months after finishing the book) I was trying to think who I would recommend the book to. In truth, I couldn’t think of anyone to whom this would be of particular interest, yet that might seem and unfair denigration. That does not mean that it will not be of interest to anyone. As with any VSI, it’s a quick read so will not take up too much of your time.  It also comes armed with a very useful list for further reading, should you be inclined to carry on a new-found interest in the subject.

Putting my money where my mouth is

The 6th of April marked the start of a new tax year. At this time, there were a number of changes to the rates and bands in income tax and national insurance. Other changes to the social security system began on the 1st, with the government coming in for much criticism, in my opinion rightly so. One of the consequences that was much vaunted was Iain Duncan Smith declaring on radio 4 that he could live on £53 per week. I don’t think I could. During my time of being unemployed last year, I received £142 per fortnight. This was to cover all expenses: rent, council tax, food, utilities and travel to and from interviews. Some people told me that I ought to have been able to claim more, but this was flatly contradicted when I asked staff at the Job Centre Plus. Anyway, there was a public demand for Iain Duncan Smith to stay true to his word and demonstrate that he could live up to his claim. This was later dismissed by him as a “stunt”. Yet over 19 times as many people have signed that petition as voted for him at the last general election (at the time of writing, the figure stands at 438,210 compared to his election vote of 22,743). I wonder if his election was a stunt too.

It struck me that since he was being asked to put his money where his mouth was, it would only be right to be willing to do so myself. I ran some figures through the BBC budget calculator and worked out that in the 2013-14 tax year I will be about £179 better off. The thing is, though, I don’t think I should be better off. If I didn’t contribute to a defined contribution pension scheme or didn’t gift aid any donations then I would be a higher rate tax payer. As such, I know that means I am a hell of a lot better off than most people in this country.

The economy does have a problem with a large deficit and efforts should be made to reduce it. However, I disagree with the way the coalition government has gone about doing this. Instead of asking those who are most able to pay, the onus has been on those who have the fewest choices: the poor, the disabled and the unemployed. There is a paranoia among those on the political right that if you apply the sensible notion of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” then this will result in those who pay the highest marginal rate of tax choosing to leave the country, thereby denying the economy of their spending power and robbing the treasury of potential tax revenues. So those are paid excessively more than they need to live on have been given a tax break. But remember, even at the highest marginal rate (i.e. the rate you pay for every ‘extra’ £1 on your earnings), their effective rate (total income tax & national insurance paid divided by total gross income) is far lower. For example, though I am a higher rate tax payer, I only pay 42% (40% income tax and 2% NI) on the top few pounds of my earnings. My effective rate is 26.5%.

Yet I am unconvinced by scaremongering which suppose that the rich will flee the country to avoid taxes. Even if a small minority do, shame on them. By choosing to squeeze those with the least disposable income, the government has tried to fix the problem in the most inappropriate way. While it is a good thing in principle to encourage people into work, there have to be jobs for people to go to. Not only that, but they should be jobs that pay a decent wage. To use an analogy, imagine someone being asked to walk along a tightrope. What’s the best way to keep them safe? I would say it is to help them stay on the rope, not by removing chunks of the safety net. Yet the recent raft of reforms seems to be doing the latter

As my salary is above the national average (see link to the report from the Office for National Statistics above for details on the average being £26,500), I think I ought to be paying a greater proportion of my income in taxation. Yet I still get this £179 ‘bonus’ because of changes in the bands and rates. What should I do with this? Well, it would be hard to ‘donate’ it to the Treasury, so I am here, publicly, pledging to donate this to charity. On top of any other giving I may have, I promise I will set up a standing order for £20 per month (I rounded up) to a new charity I have not previously made a commitment to. What I need is your help.

Firstly, I need your help in choosing which registered charity to donate to. Ideally, I’d like it be one that helps those who are worse affected by the changes to social security that the government has brought in. I would appreciate your nominations from which I may then choose.

Secondly, without anyone else taking up this challenge, this will be a mere act of tokenism on my part. I would like this to become ‘A Thing’ amongst those of us who are socially minded, are paid more than it costs to live and who feel it wrong that they should benefit while those who are worse off suffer. So I would like to encourage you, even issue you a challenge, to undertake a similar commitment.

Should christians accept bonuses?

Background

I had a recent chat with another christian when this question came up as part of the conversation. Anyone who knows me or reads this blog will know that I am distinctively left-leaning. One of the main reasons for this is because I am a christian. I have a lot of difficulty understanding the idea of the “christian right” as I consider it to be an oxymoron.

Subsequently, I have quite strong views when it comes to money. So I wanted to lay out my reasoning for why I think the answer to the question ought to be “no,” though I wanted to understand the counter-argument. As a result, I asked around a little bit, which is laid out below. I have also attempted to play devil’s advocate.

Of course, I am not judging christians who do accept bonuses as part of their remuneration. If you do, all I’d like to do is make you think and question your motivation for accepting it.

Why I think the answer ought to be “no”

The fundamental reason why I would not be happy to accept it is one of motivation. Without giving too much confidential information away, employees in my company are given a choice. They can accept a fixed salary of £x per year, or else they could take a lower salary with a bonus which, when combined is greater than £x. So let’s say someone might be offered a basic pay of £30k, or they might be offered £28k with a £4k bonus. Of course the bonus is tied to their meeting certain conditions. If they meet their targets, they will obtain their bonus; if they get part-way they will be awarded part of their bonus. If they don’t meet the minimum target, they won’t get anything.

To my way of thinking, this creates a danger that we then work, our motivation becomes the creation of personal wealth. Following on from my recent post on worship, this would indicate that we are worshipping money. Of course, we may to rationalise this by claiming that we are accepting the bonus structure in order to pay our rent, fund the train fares, feed the family, etc. What I do not like about this view is that it creates the false impression that we would not be able to make ends meet without the bonus.

I would rather my motivation to work be because I want to do a good job. As I touched on briefly recently, there are many ways we can worship. To me, trying to do a good job at work is a part (though by no means all) of my worship. There is the very famous warning in 1 Timothy, where Paul writes “if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (1 Tim 6:8-10, NRSV) Often only a part of that is quoted, but I wanted to include the lot.

Having worked in financial services for several years, and subsequently working in the finance side of a different type of business, I am surrounded by those who are obsessed with money. It would be very easy to get sucked into that world, where I’d care about profit and trying to boost my own pay, quite possibly at the expense of others. That’s not someone I’d ever want to become. I want to be someone who is content with what I have.

Another passage in my thinking (though I recognise that money is not the primary purpose of this particular discourse) is Romans 4, where Paul writes, “Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation.” (Romans 4:4, NIV) This is as close as I can find to anything about bonuses. I hope you don’t think I’m stretching scripture too much; that’s not my intention.

The devil’s advocate argument (why it might be OK)

You have to recognise that the pay culture we have in modern society would be totally alien to those living in the 18th century, let alone anyone before then. So the people of the bible wouldn’t have known enough to either speak in favour or against company bonuses.

There are various people in the bible who had great wealth and who were not condemned for it. Abraham was a bit of a Richard Branson-type figure of his day, and in terms of a single individual owning a high proportion of the world’s wealth, Solomon was probably one of the richest men in history. Yet neither of them were condemned for their wealth. It was incidental to them. This brings us on to the so-called ‘prosperity gospel.’

Proponents of this view often cite Psalm 37 as a justification for not only claiming that wealth is acceptable, but that it is a sign of reward for faithfulness: “Trust in the LORD, and do good; Dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness. Delight yourself also in the LORD, And He shall give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:3,4, NKJV) I interpret this quite differently. Given the preamble of verse 3, I think what constitutes the “desires of [our] hearts” will be changed so that we no longer will be desiring of wealth, but rather we will be desiring the riches of God. (c.f. Romans 12).

Given the balance of the number of times wealth and money are referred to in the bible, I think that prosperity advocates must have a hard time defending their position. For brevity, I’ve omitted most references I could use to back this up; maybe another day.

Some practical considerations

Of course, not everyone is given a choice to not have a bonus as part of their pay packet. You have to be in a particularly high-end job to be able to change the terms of your employment contract. Given that I have only ever taken jobs whilst unemployed, I never had much bargaining power, so I simply wouldn’t do anything to jeopardise the prospect of employment.

Then you have the choice of what to do with it. I asked on Twitter what people thought about it, though I only got 1 reply which was that it’s OK to accept a bonus, so long as it is donated to charity. More widely, there are a number of good things you could do with additional money, of which giving to charity is but one. However, I think christians always have to keep a tight reign on their motives. For example, if you donate via a Just Giving page (or similar) do you disclose your name and the amount you are donating, or do you go by the principle of “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” (Matt 6:3)?

Conclusion

For my conscience, I am happier to not take a bonus. I do not think it is inherently wrong to do so. What is important is what you do with it. In this, I probably ought to be honest about my own pay packet. I contribute to a pension scheme which removes from my pay packet 10% of my gross pay. This pushes me down into the “basic rate” tax band. Had I opted not to do this, I would be higher rate tax payer, having a marginal rate of 40% on a small portion of my salary. As it stands, my effective rate (total tax+NI/total pay) is 26.7%. From this, you can tell that I am paid significantly more than the average salary. This is slightly tempered by my train fares of £87.50 a week. Once you take tax into account, this means that if I got a job within walking distance of home, I could take a gross pay cut of just over £6,000 per year and it would have no effect on my take-home pay.

Given that I am such a highly paid job, putting me amongst the top few percent of UK workers, I think that to demand any extra would be selfish and immature. When I work long hours, I don’t complain about a lack of overtime, in spite of pressure to do so. When I think of all the millions in this country alone (let alone the billions elsewhere in the world) who do not have the material riches that I have, it is very humbling. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48b, NIV) It is a huge responsibility and one that has to be taken seriously. Personally, I find those who have abundant material wealth, and yet who complain about a lack of it, to be repugnant; it’s one of the biggest intolerances I have. Maybe I’m being harsh and lacking grace; I don’t know.

So that’s my choice. What’s your take on the matter?