Taxing the Rich (how to)

Do you want to raise more taxes from rich people, dear Reader? I thought so. Then a read of in the United States and Europe by Kenneth Scheve and David Stasavage is illuminating.

[amazon_image id=”0691165459″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Taxing the Rich: A History of Fiscal Fairness in the United States and Europe[/amazon_image]

Apart from anything else, the historical data on top tax rates is fascinating. There have really only been two big moves in top income (and inheritance) tax rates: up, a lot, from the 1920s to around 1950; down, by half of a lot, mainly in the 1980s but drifting down subsequently. It is also interesting to note the contrast between the US/UK top marginal rates and the rest of the developed world – about 40% vs about 60%. As in so many areas, the fact that data and economic research are heavily US-centric has a distorting effect on economic policy debates elsewhere. Extraordinarily, the burden of total taxation on the highest income bracket in the UK reached 90.7% during the second world war (compared to 19.1% for the bottom group). Talk about progressive.

The book discusses the forces driving the trends in taxation of the rich. The authors’ main point is that war has been the principal driver, with the sense of fairness the result of the calls the state made on citizens at those times. It was at times when the government demanded immense sacrifices from the majority of the population that the effective social contract ensured the wealthy paid: “War mobilization changed beliefs about tax fairness. It created an opportunity for new and compelling compensatory arguments that increased support for taxing the rich.” In other words, while the arguments for taxing the rich have always relied on fairness, the notion of fairness has changed at different times. The book demonstrates that as wars created opportunities for profit for capitalists, thanks to wartime production, the demand they should shoulder more of the tax burden gained great traction.

The book challenges the previous consensus that the consensus in favour of strongly redistributive taxation, to compensate for the sacrifice of ordinary people, lasted for any length of time after world war two. And to the extent there was, it anyway steadily crumbled. The book agrees that globalization, and a new emphasis on incentives for economic growth, played a part in reducing tax rates on the rich as the 20th century wore on. But they argue that a more important factor was the weakening of the kind of compenstory arguments that had been available in wartime. “Different compensatory arguments can be made today, but they have a smaller impact. In today’s debates about progressive taxation, observers often fail to appreciate this fact.”

The book reports a representative survey of over 2000 Americans showing that the top marginal tax rate they select is in fact below today’s rate of 39.6%. There appears to be little support from this for higher taxation. To put it another way, Americans don’t see why Silicon Valley should be taxed because Wall Street was bailed out – although they oppose the bailout. The lesson is: ‘fairness’ is not an abstract concept. You have to find a fairness argument with traction, and the compensatory arguments being used by the left today do not have that. Looking back to the 19th century, before the era of global war provided a strong compensatory argument, the principles that enabled increases in taxes on the rich concerned equal treatment for all within the tax system: as existing taxes were raised on land, new mercantile fortunes were untaxed. So taxation was extended in its coverage. The authors suggest looking to the thickets of exemptions and special privileges rather than the headline-grabbing top marginal rates. Interestingly, this is something Jo Maugham emphasised this week. Maybe he had read this very interesting book. David Stasavage also spoke at this recent LSE Conference on inequality.

 

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Inequality and the seeds of destruction

I’ve been reading Branko Milanovic’s new book . I’ll be reviewing it for the journal Democracy, not for here.

[amazon_enhanced asin=”067473713X” /]

It adds to a recent literature on inequality, of which Thomas Piketty’s is the best known, but also includes some excellent books with a lower public profile – Anthony Atkinson’s and François Bourguignon’s . I liked the Atkinson book especially for its down-to-earth list of supremely practical policy proposals to reduce inequality. About the Milanovic book I’ll just say for the moment that it will be another must-read on the subject, and includes a super-clear overview of the global income inequality data as well as a persuasive analysis of the forces driving inequality trends (far more persuasive than Piketty’s determinism).

 [amazon_image id=”067443000X” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Capital in the Twenty-First Century[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”0674504763″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Inequality[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”069116052X” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Globalization of Inequality[/amazon_image]

Why now? The answer to that is surely events; a degree of inequality tolerable when the economy was booming is intolerable now there is less growth. Does it matter? Just read Martin Wolf’s sobering column today (£) (The Economic Losers Are in Revolt Against the Elites) to appreciate why it might. These are fragile times, whether you look at migration, climate change, global epidemics, demography, populism – exactly the circumstances when you would want people to be pulling together rather than diverging into separate worlds (Davos-land, middle England or America, refugee camps) due to such big differences in income. Milanovic’s book lends weight to Wolf’s pessimism: “If western elites despise the concerns of the many, the latter will withdraw their consent for the elite’s projects. In the US, elites of the right, having sown the wind, are reaping the whirlwind. But this has happened only because elites of the left have lost the allegiance of swaths of the native middle classes.”

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Sharing the economic growth

Thanks to a recommendation from Martin Wolf, I’ve just read by J de V Graaff, a 1971 reprint of a 1957 primer on this subject – Martin told me it had been his university text. While in my undergraduate course we certainly covered welfare economics, it was as a settled body of knowledge, and I don’t recall reading anything like this on the earlier debates.

[amazon_image id=”0521094461″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Theoretical Welfare Economics[/amazon_image]

It’s a very clear and interesting discussion – succinct too, at about 150 pages. One of the most interesting aspects is how comprehensively the author demolishes the idea that questions about the size of the economic pie and its distribution can be separated. He lost the argument in later economics of course – economists assume, and often state, that these are separable. However, the strength of Graaff’s counter-argument is evident. At the formal level, he covers the inconsistency of the Kaldor/Hicks notion that losers from a change in allocation can (potentially) be compensated – Skitovsky originally showed that the (potential) Pareto optimality of any change depended on the initial distribution. (Here is a good Interfluidity explanation.) But the book also explains it far more intuitively:

“In a one commodity world some definite meaning could be attached to a phrase like ‘the size of national income’; and we could legitimately  say that welfare depended on the size and the distribution of this one commodity. But as soon as we leave a one-commodity world this ceases to be true. There is no unambiguous meaning we can attach to ‘the size of national income’ when we have a heterogeneous collection of goods and services. How can we combine the various goods into a single quantity that can be said to have a ‘size’? By weighting them and striking an average? This is certainly a possibility. But we can only get the relevant weights from a welfare function; and if we have the usual Paretian one … it will only tell us what weights to use when the distribution of goods among members of the community is given. Only in a very limited sense can welfare be said to depend on ‘size’ and ‘distribution’ – for the two elements are no longer independent and cannot be separated out.” [my italics]

He adds that the index numbers usd in constructing national income cannot be an indicator of change in welfare – they simply provide information relevant to a balanced judgement. “Index numbers of aggregate output or consumption should always be supplemented with information about the distribution of income and wealth – and also with separate indexes of investment, personal and collective savings, and expenditure on collective goods like defence. The more informatio made available, the more likely it is that a balanced judgement will be obtained.”

So here I think we have one of the earliest arguments for the ‘dashboard’ approach to measuring economic progress. But also an irrefutable case – with as many singing and dancing cross-partial derivatives as you like – for never leaving income distribution out of an assessment of how the economy is doing.

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American exceptionalism, inequality version

Yesterday on my travels I read a short book, , by Matthew Drennan. Professor Drennan is an urban planning expert, so having read the book’s blurb, I expected it to be a critique of the economics profession, and braced myself.

[amazon_image id=”0300209584″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Income Inequality: Why it Matters and Why Most Economists Didn’t Notice[/amazon_image]

It ended up not being what I expected. In fact, the book repeats Raghuram Rajan’s argument in – that low-income Americans went into debt to increase their consumption levels as well as buy homes, keeping up somewhat with the rich thanks to easy credit. One of the central chapters has a long appendix reporting some econometric work claiming to establish causality between higher income inequality and higher debt. However, it is not sufficiently detailed to be able to assess the empirical work, while too technical to be of interest to the general reader. So the central section of the book is a bit odd.

It’s a fair cop to say the generality of the economics profession did not pay enough attention to rising income inequality. The biggest lasting impact of Piketty’s , and the work with Atkinson and Saez on which it was based, will turn out to have been consciousness raising. Nobody is ignoring it now. However, there are now several important books on this subject: as well as and , Mian and Sufi’s , Atkinson’s , Francois Bourguignon’s and Branko Milanovic’s forthcoming . I didn’t find much novelty in Drennan’s , although it is at least a short introduction.

Above all, though, my reaction to the book wasn’t that it was about economics, more that it was about America. We do tend to forget that inequality is greater in the US than most other OECD countries, and has risen more. Perhaps it can act as the canary in the cage for the rest of us, but a good part of the story lies in US politics and institutions. After all, just look at the Republican primary contenders.

OECD income inequality

OECD income inequality

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Inequality in 90 pages?

A small book has just arrived, , by Harry G Frankfurt of On Bullshit fame. On first glance it looks like a provocative argument that inequality shouldn’t bother us, the moral challenge is the reduction of poverty. On a closer read, the essay argues: “Our basic focus should be on reducing both poverty and excessive affluence. But the reduction of inequality cannot itself be our most essential ambition.”

[amazon_image id=”0691167141″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]On Inequality[/amazon_image]

Well, I agree, but think this takes the argument for “reducing inequality” too literally – surely most people use it as a short-hand for addressing the extremes of the distribution, poverty because a civilized society cares about its weakest members, wealth because its excess has anti-democratic political consequences and undermines cohesion. I think arguing for a stronger version of equalising than this is not so often advocated.

Meanwhile, the best arguments about why strong version equality of incomes is unattainable and undesirable remain Milton Friedman’s in chapter 10 of .

Frankfurt concludes: “The pursuit of egalitarian goals often has very substantial utility in promoting a variety of compelling political and social ideals. But the widespread conviction that equality itself and as such has some basic value as an independently important moral ideal is not only mistaken; it is an impediment to the identification of what is truly of fundamental moral and social worth.” That thing being respect. Well yes, but the argument underplays our strong fairness instinct, perhaps.

I like the essay format, so although isn’t really as provocative a book as it seems, it’s a lively – and a short – read.

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