Realism and utopia – a guest review

A guest review by Koen Smets

In the same way that most drivers consider themselves better than average, I suspect most people consider themselves realists – not too optimistic, and not too pessimistic. I certainly do, and so I find myself right in the group at which Rutger Bregman’s  is aimed.

[amazon_image id=”9082520303″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-hour Workweek[/amazon_image]

It is Bregman’s first book to be published in English, bundling many ideas that he has written about before, notably in regular pieces for the Dutch website De Correspondent. Its subtitle, The case for a universal basic income, open borders, and a 15-hour work week, suggests it is not quite another lightweight campaigning pamphlet, but an ambitious attempt to show not just why these radical aspirations must be pursued but also how they can be realized. My expectations were raised accordingly. Unfortunately,  rather falls short of its ambition.

Bregman starts off with a somewhat breathless catalogue of human achievements in health and wealth: we really have never had it so good. The mediaeval fantasy of the Land of Plenty has become reality. Nevertheless, we’re miserable, and for the first time ever we believe that children will be worse off than their parents. That makes it the ideal moment for a genuinely big project, according to Bregman the optimist.

15 hours per week

“Money is time,” Bregman observes. He channels Keynes and John Stuart Mill, both of whom had predicted we would work less and less, and shows how, for many decades, we have been buying time with our increased wealth. But by the late 1980s we suddenly stopped sacrificing money to get even more free time. Bregman blames social pressure, fuelled by commercial interests. Even so, is this is not simply playing into preferences inherent in human nature? Time is only one of the numerous things we can trade for money.

We may work less than our ancestors, but we are weighed down by stress, and overtime is rife. Bregman bombards the reader with solid and comprehensive research to show where it all went wrong, and his conclusion is straightforward. Working less will solve pretty much all our troubles: stress, climate change, accidents, unemployment, emancipation of women, and the ageing population. “We inhabitants of the Land of Plenty could work fewer than 15 hours a week by 2050, and earn the same amount as in 2000,” Bregman says, echoing Keynes’ prediction from 1930, which foresaw the same for 2030.

But if this is such a no-brainer, why are so few people actually working 15-hour weeks? Have today’s CEOs been abandoned by the enlightenment that made business leaders like Henry Ford and WK Kellogg cut the working week in the 1930s? How come the public sector, outside the harsh commercial realities of private enterprise, is not leading the way?

Bregman points at surveys which found that people from all over the world would prefer two weeks’ extra holiday over two weeks’ extra pay by a factor two. So apparently we want more leisure, but we work more. This is reminiscent of what David Ogilvy said: “People don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.” Bregman’s solution to this paradox is resolutely paternalistic: “Collective action – by companies, or better still, by countries.”

Poverty

The best way of lifting people out of poverty is to give them money, says Bregman. No sign of paternalism here: “Put the choice in the hands of the poor,” he recommends, eloquently dismissing the myth that poor people cannot handle money. But alleviating poverty by giving one-off cash grants to poor and homeless people is hardly a solid case for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) – a steady income stream going to anyone who “has a pulse”.

The problem is not that people will turn into lazy couch potatoes – the Mincome experiment in Canada in the 1970s showed that people are nothing like the neoclassical homo economicus, who simplistically responds to incentives, and who would stop working if there was free money. There was barely a decline in working hours.

The problem is with the sums. Bregman claims that, “For the first time in history, we are actually rich enough to finance a sizable basic income.” But what size? A study by Matt Bruenig estimates the cost for eradicating poverty in the USA at “only $175 million”. Distributed equally over the US population, every person would get about $550 per year, or just over $10 per week.

And even that needs to come from somewhere – technology, Bregman believes. The robots will come and take our jobs, and that is a good thing: it means we can, “Reject the dogma that you have to work for a living.” Just tax the robots. Sounds simple, but it conceals huge complexity: automation applies differently to different jobs and in different countries.

The world came very close to an actual, real, nationwide unconditional income for poor families – in the USA, no less. Bregman devotes an entire chapter to the rise and fall of a seminal UBI under president Richard Nixon in 1969. But thanks to rhetoric, defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory: the prospect of “inciting the poor to even greater idleness”, based on a tendentious analysis of the welfare system in Speenhamland in 1830s England, was the death knell of the proposal.

Unfair wages

Another of Bregman’s bêtes noires is the gap between the wage for a job and its societal usefulness. Why, he wonders, should wealth shifters like bankers earn more than wealth creators like teachers or indeed garbage collectors? He might as well get worked up about the fact that even the most expensive litre bottle of water costs a lot less than a kilo of gold.

Are there really ever more people earning money without contributing anything of tangible value to society? Once all societal needs – food, shelter, healthcare, education – are fulfilled, things shift to the individual transaction level. We may regret the fact that there are so many lawyers in the US, and be puzzled by the fact that this doesn’t mean Americans are better protected than citizens of countries with fewer attorneys. But somehow, every lawyer is – we may assume – deriving her income from someone who willingly pays her for her services, money her client has a choice to spend differently. Unless we can show why this is not a mutually beneficial transaction, value – in the eye of the beholder – is being created.

Bregman’s solution is simple, though: “Higher taxes would get more people to do work that’s useful.” It seems to escape him that a higher tax doesn’t discriminate between the incomes of people who shift wealth and those who create wealth. It penalizes both in the same way.

Redistribution and efficiency

Much of the book is balanced and factual, but on a few occasions Bregman morphs into a campaigner on speed. There is a weird rant against advertising. There is a bizarre attack on the market economy (“The modern marketplace is equally uninterested in usefulness, quality, and innovation. All that really matters is profit.”) There is a peculiar condemnation of our “fixation on ‘efficiency’ and ‘gains’, as though society were nothing but one big production line.” These contribute little or nothing to the central ideas, and the style erodes the credibility of the book’s other arguments..

Bregman – no doubt to the delight of the owner of this blog! – also devotes almost an entire chapter to the most widely used instrument for measuring progress, Gross Domestic Product, taking great relish in demolishing it. But he is really kicking in an open door: the shortcomings of the GDP are well-known and well-documented. None of the alternatives, from Gross National Happiness and the Genuine Progress Indicator to the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare and the OECD’s Better Life Index satisfy him either.

By now, it should not be a surprise that Bregman advocates a larger public sector: they can leverage activities that “cannot be made more efficient”, such as education and healthcare. He believes that, “The more efficient our factories and our computers, the less efficient our healthcare and education need to be; that is, the more time we have left to attend to the old and infirm and to organize education on a more personal scale.” This is an idiosyncratic interpretation of the concept of efficiency.

Bregman seems to miss the fact that we are economic beings: if we sacrifice something, whether it’s time, effort or money, we want to get something in return that we feel is worth it. We want to be efficient when it’s not the task we are enjoying, but the outcome of the task. That is not only why the Land of Plenty is so appealing, but also why we have made so much progress towards it.

A larger public sector without any notion of efficiency sounds like a dangerous path to take. Yet Bregman says, “Governing by numbers is the last resort of a country that no longer knows what it wants, a country with no vision of utopia,” as if the amount of subsidy the state will give to ‘inefficient’ activities, and the ways in which it will be able to raise the necessary revenue are not numbers that, eventually, matter greatly.

Open Borders

But Bregman also has a libertarian streak. He criticizes conventional aid for spending pitifully small amounts of money to projects with questionable outcomes. If we were really serious about relieving global poverty, we would open our Western borders. That would make the world twice as rich as it is now, and boost wealth by sixty-five trillion dollars.

So what stops us? We are hypocrites, hiding behind fallacious objections. Migrants will take our jobs, they will force our wages down, they are too lazy to work, and they’ll never go back. Bregman counters them all, as in the best parts of the book, with plenty of evidence. But the angst across the EU in relation to a population of refugees amounting to barely 1% of its population shows that we’re some way off accepting the economic logic of the win-win argument of open borders.

A disappointed realist

In the final chapter, Bregman wonders whether he might be caught out by confirmation bias: “If I’m being honest, I sometimes wonder if I’d even let myself notice if the evidence were pointing another way. Would I be observant enough – or brave enough – to have a change of heart?”

Ultimately, the book majors on explaining why its three central radical thoughts are good ideas – and this is indeed a hallmark of confirmation bias. Looking at the arguments against, and putting up solid counterarguments is not enough. “The question is not can new ideas defeat old ones; the question is how,” says Bregman. And on that last question, the answers are sadly lacking.

A realist would have wanted to see how the loss and risk aversion that prevent the West from opening up its borders to economic migrants could be conquered.

People in the rich West have plenty of options to make different trade-offs between time and money. The barriers to adopting a 15-hour week are not high, and both employers and employees would be fools not to take advantage of the apparent win-win situation it offers. Yet it’s not happening. A realist would have wanted to see an explanation for this reluctance, and ideas on how to overcome it.

And above all, a realist would have liked to see solutions to the fundamental issue with a UBI: how to pay for it. The problem, as Bregman explains, is not that the UBI will be a disincentive to work. It is that, in order to raise enough money to provide a UBI that is high enough to live on, it is the taxation on high incomes that will act as a disincentive. “Only a fraction of our prosperity is due to our own exertions,” says Bregman. But the other fraction is not generated without some exertion. And if there is not enough incentive for people to actually put in the effort to produce 100%, even if they’re only personally entitled to 10%, the other 90% remains elusive.

Koen Smets is an accidental behavioural economist, who works as an organization development specialist. He uses elements from both orthodox microeconomics and behavioural economics to bring about behavioural change. He is on Twitter as @koenfucius

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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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