Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Taxing Steve

Now here's a great idea for recouping some of the increasingly frightening budget deficit, put forward by some bright spark on the government's hilarious Spending Challenge website, and pointed out by Dizzy: a windfall tax on people named Steve.

Mark Paul Woodhouse writes:

The best taxes are those that target a specific section of the population, whilst leaving the majority relatively unchanged.

The proposal is to simply tax people who have the given name Stephen or one of its derivatives.

Woodhouse (who I'm sure is being entirely serious) goes on to suggest a basic tariff of £1,500 per year for a Stephen, rising to £2,500 for the admittedly more objectionable Steve. Moreover, "If a Stephen (or one of its derivatives) is married to a Stephanie (or one of its derivatives) then a maximum tax of £6,000 should be imposed on the couple. Future revenue could be generated by targeting surnames such as Stephenson." He's got it all worked out. Not too sure about this, though:

The tax would encourage people to change their name by deed poll to something more imaginative.

Er, yes - I believe that's called a "loophole". When it comes to behaviour the goverment might want to discourage through the tax system, being called Steve isn't quite up there with chain smoking or driving a gas-guzzling four-by-four. The only reason for allowing such an easy opt-out (which might perhaps be mitigated by a levy on deed-polls) is that it would dispose of any claims that the proposal punished Steves for choices made by their parents (but then such is life). Doubtless, even with this proviso some would criticise the tax for being discriminatory (though, happily, Steveness isn't one of the "protected characteristics" mentioned in Harriet Harman's Equality Act, so it might be OK.) It would certainly impact more heavily on the male population. But then so does income tax.

I doubt George Osborne will be taking up the suggestion. Nevertheless, the idea isn't quite as barmy as you (or indeed Mr Woodhouse) may think. For a tax targeting Steves would differentially impact on the demographic best able to pay, and arguably most responsible for the mess we're in: the baby-boomers. It would, in fact, be a generally progressive tax. To quote Steven Pinker (who should know):

All my life I have been surrounded by reminders of the commonness of my given name. Its provenance is auspicious enough: stephanos, the Greek word for "crown". Nonetheless, it lay in obscurity for most of the two millennia after the stoning of the first Christian martyr... Not until the 19th century do a smattering of Stephens reappear on the world stage.. and the first decades of the 20th century added only Benet, Spender and Dedalus, the last of whom didn't even exist.

But between the 1930s, when it was around the 75th most popular name for an American baby boy and the 1950s, when I was born, Stephen (and Steven and Steve) rocketed into 7th place. And it seemed to be even more popular in the demographic circles I inhabited. For as my bulky cohort made its way through the python, I repeatedly found myself surrounded by Steves. In school I was always addressed by an initial as well as a name, since every class had two or three of us, and as I furthered my education the concentration of Steveness just kept increasing...

When I began to write science books, I became surrounded. I aspired to stand on the shoulders of Gould and Hawking, found myself debating first Gould and then Rose and at one point shared the shelves with all of them plus Budiansky and Jones... Steves also dominate high technology, including the CEOs of both Microsoft (Ballmer) and Apple (Jobs), the other joint founder of Apple (Wozniak) and the founder of AOL (Case)...

Hyperstevism is a phenomenon of the second half of the 20th century. Like tulips, dot-com stocks and other examples of the madness of crowds, the fortunes of Steve fell as quickly as they rose. Today it has fallen to levels not seen since the nineteen teens, and it may become as geriatric as Elmer or Clem.

From The Stuff of Thought

As this implies, Stephen and its derivatives are not merely differentially popular in his age-bracket; it is also primarily a middle-class name. Pinker is writing primarily about the United States, but the same demographic phenomenon appears on this side of the Atlantic. It goes without saying that all the Steves mentioned in the above passage could well afford the surcharge proposed by Mr Woodhouse, as could Stephen Fry, Steve Davis or for that matter Stephen Byers, who was such an ornament of the Blair government. Of course, not all Steves are boomers. There are younger Steves, such as Mr Steven Gerrard, the noted footballer about whom various things have recently been alleged. But he, too, could well afford to contribute.

No doubt about it, this one's a winner. The Treasury should certainly tax Steves. Jeremies, too.