The Economy of the Planet of the Apes

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I saw this vandalized movie poster the other day, and I tried to be funny on Twitter (something about anti-consumerist primates, about Caesar not wanting his struggle to be commodified by the movie industry).

But this got me thinking. Assuming that the apes do take over our planet, what kind of economy are they likely to create? I’m not happy with the movie answers to this question. The movies – both the original sixties movies and the new rebooted series – depict an unconvincing economic image of ape ascendance. In both movie series the apes become clever enough to acquire human knowledge and to potentially adopt human practices and institutions, including the human economy. But they don’t.

In the rebooted series the apes seem not particularly interested in becoming the new humans, perhaps understandably. They’ve returned to the woods near San Francisco in the second movie, and they’re clearly not going to just continue the human economy based on capitalist production and trade. They seem clever enough to do this, but they either lack the will or the incentives to use their new intelligence to acquire the knowledge, the science, the technology, the institutions and the behaviors necessary to recreate a capitalist economy. In the original movies, the apes have created a primitive, pre-industrial caste-like system based on human slavery.

Either scenario seems unlikely. After all, if the apes have human level intelligence, why not use it in a better way? In the rebooted series the apes seem to have no desire to use their new knowledge and improve their economy. Pre-ascendance, apes had (or should I say “have”) no significant agriculture or other types of economic production, no surplus to trade, and no means of exchange. They were (“are”) essentially hunter-gatherers. Why put up with all the risks inherent in keeping such a fragile economic model if you’ve recently gained enough units of intelligence sufficient to improve it? The apes in the rebooted series resist the temptation of retribution (apart from some skirmishes – these are action-movies after all). They’re not interested in subjugating the humans and creating a human-slave economy as they do in the older movies. They want to stay in the forest and keep the humans out. They want to remain essentially ape-like in their behavior, if not their knowledge.

This extreme case of status quo bias seems an unlikely course of action after a major and sudden shift in levels of intelligence. And the actions of the apes in the original series are just as hard to understand. They have human-like intelligence and yet they decide that they want a vindictive system of pre-industrial slavery. Good for the storylines of the movies, but bad for long-term viability and productivity. And hard to understand given the fact that we are led to assume that they should know better.

There’s an article here starting from Austrian economics to make the not entirely convincing point that apes can be both highly intelligent and still remain hunter-gatherers. The argument goes like this: apes, even or especially intelligent ones, must remain hunter-gatherers for some time because sudden agriculturalization or industrialization of their economy would likely turn out to be immensely harmful and even disastrous in the short term. Everyone would starve. You need capital, time and sufficient stocks of supplies to create the institutions necessary for industrialization. I’m not convinced. If the apes do take over, they can also take over the stocks, tools and other forms of capital created by humans. They don’t have to industrialize from scratch.

If neither the movies nor Austrian economics help us to flesh out the unlikely future economy in a world ruled by apes, can we perhaps turn to primatology? We do know a lot about current ape behavior. Assuming that this behavior doesn’t entirely go away with intelligence enhancement, what can it tell us? One of the things we know, such as primates’ fondness of reciprocity and sharing, their inequity aversion and use of altruistic punishment would suggest a mixed economy with a strong welfare state, or even communism. Other things, however, such as the often strong competitive forces at play in primate groups, would suggest a very unencumbered free market economy. (There have been successful efforts to introduce currency into monkey economies). But then again, maybe the original movies were correct: strong primate group hierarchy points to more traditional economic models. So it would seem that our future of ape dominance is up for grabs. Maybe we will indeed be reduced to human slaves in a strictly hierarchical pre-industrial society. Or maybe the apes will join the WTO.

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Income Inequality (18): No Such Thing – Good Thing – Necessary Evil – Gone Thing?

Attitudes towards income inequality in the U.S. differ widely.

  • There are those who deny that there is any, or better that there is enough to be worried about (see here for an example, or here).
  • Others say that it’s a good thing, and that there should be more of it. People are very different in their talents and work ethic, and rewarding the highly productive and creative ones for their efforts – which is only “fair” – automatically results in income inequality, because the unproductive and uncreative will not be rewarded, or less generously.
  • And then there are those who believe income inequality is a necessary evil. They don’t particularly like huge differences in rewards for activities which are, after all, often hardly comparable in any quantitive sense (is it so much more worthwhile to invest your efforts and creativity in the development of the iPhone than in the education of your children?). But they do believe that financial rewards stimulate productivity, and that higher rewards stimulate more. And increased productivity ultimately benefits us all, even those who are worse off and on the wrong side of the income inequality. (This is a version of “trickle down” economics).
  • Still others think that income inequality isn’t a problem any longer, given the effect of the recession on high earners.

Note: these 4 views aren’t necessarily incompatible. One and the same person can, as I see it, hold at least 3 of them at the same time. (E.g. you can believe that there isn’t much inequality, that what is left will soon be gone, and that you hope it will be back one day).

I think only the third view has some relation to the truth. Regarding the first view:

The basic conclusion of this data, that the nation [the U.S.] suffers from extreme and growing income inequality, is essentially irrefutable. Bruce Judson (source)

Regarding the second view: I object to it not because I don’t want to reward people or because I think justice has nothing to do with merit. On the contrary. I object to it because it assumes that different people and different activities can be placed on a single scale of merit and reward. It’s impossible to compare activities and say that one deserves a $10.000 per year reward (i.e. income) and another activity, compared to this first, is 10 times more deserving and hence deserves a $100.000 per year reward. Merit isn’t just a financial or quantitative thing, and hence it cannot – at least not exclusively – justify income inequality. Moreover, the income inequality that we see in the real world has little or nothing to do with merit. Most people aren’t paid according to any definition of merit. In the best case, they are paid because of their talents, which isn’t anything anyone deserves. In all other cases – and in the large majority of cases – people’s pay or income is determined by factors such as luck, family, networks, playing on the stock exchange etc., and none of these things are even marginally related to merit. In a society that rewards people for their creativity and productivity, you expect to see high levels of social mobility, and that’s precisely what you don’t see in the U.S.

Regarding the third view, I do believe that it is essentially correct, but it obfuscates many of the problems caused by income inequality. Hence, even if economic efficiency doesn’t justify efforts to limit income inequality, other things do.

The fourth view would seem to make sense intuitively. A lot of the income of the very wealthy comes from the stock markets, and the recession has pushed these markets down.

Professor Saez concludes that “the most likely outcome is that income concentration will fall in 2008 and 2009.” But, he follows this conclusion by stating that in the absence of significant policy actions such declines will be temporary: “Based on the US historical record, falls in income concentration due to recessions are temporary unless drastic policy changes, such as financial regulation or significantly more progressive taxation, are implemented and prevent income concentration from bouncing back. Such policy changes took place after the Great Depression during the New Deal and permanently reduced income concentration till the 1970s. In contrast, recent downturns, such as the 2001 recession, lead to only very temporary drops in income concentration.” Bruce Judson (source)

Moreover, the poor are also suffering as a result of the recession, not in the same absolute measures as the rich, but that is because they have less to lose in the first place. However, what they do lose as a result of the recession is for them relatively more important.

Recent data show that income inequality hasn’t actually decreased in 2008. Maybe in 2009… The recession only got started late in 2008.

Economic Human Rights (29): Unemployment Benefits in the U.S. and Elsewhere

Strange as it may seem to some, unemployment benefits are a human right, and rightly so in my opinion. Poverty makes rights impossible, and unemployment benefits save many from poverty, especially during a recession in which unemployment isn’t just a phase between two jobs. Read for instance art. 22, 23 and 25 of the Universal Declaration:

Article 22: Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security.

Article 23: Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

Article 25: Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Three times! They must have meant it.

Compared to many other industrialized countries, the U.S. usually adopts a very critical attitude towards social and economic rights in general, and hence also to the right to unemployment benefits. Which is apparent from its relatively stingy system.

At just under $300, the average weekly benefit is less than half the average private-sector wage. Mississippi’s maximum benefit of $230 is not much more than the federal poverty threshold of $200 for an individual. (source)

And it’s not just the total amounts of the benefits:

Compared with the systems in other industrialised countries, the American unemployment-insurance (UI) scheme pays lower benefits for less time and to a smaller share of the unemployed. … States often require beneficiaries to have worked or earned an amount that disqualifies many part-time and low-wage workers. They also disqualify people seeking only part-time work – even though many people now work part-time for family reasons. Benefits typically last for only six months, more than enough time to find a new job in normal times but not in recessions. (source)

This isn’t only a human rights issue. Especially in a recession it can mean making things worse. When people lose their jobs, you don’t want them to lose a large part of their purchasing power since economic recessions are made worse by falling consumer spending.

However, making the system of unemployment benefits more generous would almost certainly require higher taxes. And although the U.S. is a low-tax country (compared to other industrialized countries) that seems pretty utopian right now (given the already hysterical fears about the fiscal consequences of the healthcare proposals).

The Recession, the Economics Profession, and the Prediction of the Future

The current economic recession has cast a shadow on the economics profession. Economists are blamed for not having foreseen the recession. There’s for example this famous article by Paul Krugman.

Whereas many economists undoubtedly have encouraged wrong policies and harmful trade practices, I think it’s unfair to criticize them for failing to predict the future. Contrary to the natural sciences, human sciences (or social sciences) such as economics are constitutionally unable to predict the future. The reason is their subject matter: human beings. Contrary to celestial bodies, atoms or DNA, human beings have free will, which means that we can decide to change our goals and plans. And this kind of decision cannot be foreseen because the decision is our own free choice, a choice therefore that isn’t determined by other factors. Moreover, because we live in society with others, there’s necessarily interaction between people’s goals. Other people have different goals which interfere with our own goals. And because of their own goals, they often do not wish to cooperate with us or even actively oppose us.

There is therefore an uncertainty and unpredictability inherent in our goals. This seems to be an unavoidable fact of social life. An action causes reactions, and that is why the consequences of the action are often different from the ones we intend, expect, predict or desire. Consequences are often unknown beforehand, or at least uncertain. You never know if the result of your action matches your intentions, if you will reach your goal and if things turn out as planned, as foreseen, as initially desired.

That is also why you cannot and should not be held legally or criminally responsible for all the possible consequences or results of your actions. Only for those consequence which could reasonably have been foreseen. Part of the legal definition of a mentally ill person and one of the reasons why such a person’s criminal actions should be punished in a different way (if at all) is this person’s inability to judge the consequences of his or her actions.

Reality often does not live up to expectations. Events are not always anticipated events. Many events escape the power of those who have initiated them or wish to guide them.

“Siramnes the Persian replied to those who were amazed that his enterprises turned out so badly, seeing that his projects were so wise, by saying that he alone was master of his projects while Fortune was mistress of the outcome of his enterprises . . . What he undertakes is vain if a man should presume to embrace both causes and consequences and to lead the progress of his action by the hand”. Michel de Montaigne

We all have the experience that the future is not completely determined by the will of an individual or a group. The unexpected and unwanted is part of social history because history, and even many different parts of history – many “stories” – are the result of both action and reaction, of a game of action and reaction over which no one has complete control. This is the inevitable result of the plurality of social life. Demanding prediction and predictability – as is now done of economists – means neglecting plurality. Only in the absence of plurality can predictability be conceived, because only when there is one goal will there be no action and reaction.

Hannah Arendt has lambasted the equation between history and production. History is not made by man in the sense that an artifact, a cultural object or a technological application of scientific knowledge is made by man. It is not written beforehand like a blueprint or a production procedure. History, and every social story involving different actors, is written afterwards, in retrospection, and often not even by those who act in it but by an outsider. Everybody is the author of his own actions or reactions, but not of the complete story. The complete story – all interconnecting actions, reactions and consequences – becomes clear only when it is more or less finished, afterwards, when we can know how it was and what the reactions and consequences have been.

In the words of Hegel: the owl of Minerva, the symbol of wisdom, only flies out at dusk. The actor, contrary to the author, looks forward or better tries to look forward, and by definition knows less than the author of history. It was Kierkegaard who said that life can only be understood backwards, although it must be lived forwards.

Of course, history is not entirely unpredictable. We can guess. We can try, on the basis of the past, to identify some trends, patterns, regularities etc., and hope that they will hold for the future. Some guesses are better than others. Also, contrary to the criticism of Arendt, there is sometimes creation or “production” in history. Some actions do not encounter reaction and unfold as planned beforehand. These stories do not result from the game of action and reaction or from a plurality of separate and contradictory desires. They result from one desire and one goal. In some instances, people have a goal, a desire, and can realize it in a predictable and controlled manner, without or notwithstanding reactions. Life would not be worth living without such stories. Sometimes, people have a grip on the future. Politics is also impossible without a consensus on a purpose.

Suppose we think of ruling as being an exercise of power. For someone to exercise power is for their wishes to be effective. So someone is a ruler if it is the case that what happens happens because it is in accordance with their wishes. If, then, the people rule, this means that the people’s wishes are effective. (source

Somebody who is in power has a desire and realizes this desire. Otherwise it cannot be said that this person has power.

However, such kind predictability is probably the exception. History in its entirety and many parts of it can never be a creation, a simple purpose or the realization of a plan, a process or an evolution. History and most of its parts are the result of different and contradictory actions, reactions, desires and goals interfering with each other. Therefore, the idea of progress has to be limited. There may be fields of progress, but these evolutions are counteracted by reactions and other evolutions. Progress is never global or certain or predictable.

Not even one’s personal history is written or produced entirely by the person in question. And since our identity is perhaps the same thing as our personal history, our identity is not entirely the product of our own actions and decisions either. It is also the product of the things that happened to us and of the actions and reactions of others. We act, we strive to achieve goals, but there is a plurality of goals. The single, uniform goal, either in overall history (e.g. the overall goal of progress, communism or democracy dragging people along) or in many small or personal histories, is a pipe dream. Plurality results in things happening to us, things that we cannot control or foresee but which shape our lives, histories and personalities irrespective of our will.

History and most of its parts are not made by man, but they are not made by any other force either. I do not believe that God or Fate or the Economy or whatever makes history. History is to a large extent if not entirely the result of consciously chosen human actions and reactions. Consequently, people remain responsible for their actions, although not for all the consequences of their actions. They cannot claim that things happen because God or Nature (the genes for example) or Race or Culture (the unconscious national character) or Fate or whatever wants these things to happen or causes people to make them happen. People are relatively free. Most of their actions are not caused by some necessary force outside of them (or inside of them, for that matter, but beyond their power).

In order to remedy the defects of plurality – uncertainty, unpredictability and the powerlessness which this implies – one can try to eliminate plurality. Reactions and contradictions are excluded (and maybe “reactionaries” are persecuted) and all actions are focused on one and the same goal. Instead of the plurality of individual projects, we get a collective project. Individuality disappears.

“Le groupe en fusion” or “la volonté générale” implies that the individual individual is absorbed by the community. Everybody’s individual goals or desires must be harmonized with the collective one. Every action is forced into a coherent whole. The individual will is discredited. It is egoistic, focused on the short term, subjective, reactionary; it is useless and powerless because of the contradictions with other individual wills; or it is futile because contrary to the trend of History or the forces of Biology etc. If the individual is only a part of a whole, then he can be sacrificed for the whole. Individual rights become less important. At best, people are interchangeable, specimen instead of unique individuals; at worst, they are eliminated.

As many successful dictators have shown, eliminating reaction will indeed make it possible to control the future, to remain in control of an action, to enforce certain consequences, to realize goals, to make history like an artifact or to write history like a novel. It makes it possible to know the future, to know how things will turn out, to put a clear purpose in history, a plan which unfolds exactly as it was contemplated beforehand, a clean process rather than a volatile and uncertain multi-directional chaos. If there are no reactions and only one general will, then all actions go in the same direction and toward the same goal, and only nature or inactivity can thwart our plans (hence the dictatorial need for “mobilization”). We can with much greater certainty predict the future and the realization of our plans. The expected consequences are the actual consequences. We are masters of the consequences and we control the future.

This has always been the great selling point of authoritarian government. Compared to the chaos of democracy, the “strong man” can be very efficient. I’ve refuted this here. Democracy indeed doesn’t offer predictability, precisely because it guarantees plurality. The common will of a democratic majority can be undone by reactions of the minority, by the reactions of a future majority, or by some outside force. Predictability requires unanimity rather than majority, if possible global unanimity (dictatorships are therefore often imperialistic). Only a unanimous group can have power as it was described above: power means that wishes are effective, that things happen because they are in accordance with wishes. A majority can only have limited effectiveness, effectiveness limited by future majorities and by the reactions of minorities (in a democracy, minorities have some power, e.g. their rights cannot be violated by the will of the majority). Of course, unanimity is often obtained by force: reactions are forcibly suppressed because unanimity of convictions and goals is a rare occurrence. Force then produces power, although Arendt, again, has something to say about the confusion between these two terms.

A democracy does not try to suppress or eliminate reactions and contradictions. On the contrary, it fosters them. But it does try to ritualize and soften them, take the violence out of them, because they can take a nasty turn. Democracy needs conflicts, opposition, criticism, plurality etc. It is the game of action and reaction institutionalized and accepted as an inevitable fact of life in a community with different people and different goals. It cannot exist without events initiated by some and reacted upon by others. Hence democracy embraces uncertainty and unpredictability, however unpopular and perhaps ineffective this may be.

However, democracy also needs some level of predictability. It wants to be certain of its own survival and that is why it accepts only opposition within the system. It tries to eliminate anti-democratic reaction and opposition and asks people to promise respect for democratic values. Promises produce some certainty, a certainty and predictability based on freedom and free choice, which is not the case with certainty produced by the elimination of reaction. In a tyranny, everybody is certain that the regime will survive because nobody can or dares to react, or because indoctrination and propaganda have conditioned people in such a way that they do not even contemplate reaction. In a democracy, there is relative certainty because enough people keep their promise to respect the regime. This is the rationale behind the so-called “pledges of allegiance”. Promises are based on freedom, because a promise is only valid if it is voluntary.

Of course, this does not mean that everything in a democracy is free and voluntary. Although a democracy wants to limit coercion as much as possible and tries to secure its future by way of promises, education, persuasion, judicial review etc., there has to be some coercion because some people will not make or keep the necessary promises. There will be coercion, not of promises, but of actions. Promises cannot be coerced. Coercion in this case is the use of force against anti-democratic reaction.

An anti-democratic reaction is a contradiction in terms. It is because of democracy that reaction is possible. If reaction becomes an activity without risk, as is the case in a democracy, then reaction blossoms. Reacting against democracy is not only ungrateful, it is self-destructive.

But apart from this predictability of the institutions necessary for unpredictable political life, it is clear that the focus of democracy is on conflict, contradictions, opposition, reactions, unpredictability and uncertainty. Those who want to limit the game of action and reaction are necessarily anti-democratic. More freedom and more democracy means more reaction, more plurality, more kinds of actions which can interfere with each other, and therefore more unpredictability, less control over the future, and less certainty that goals will be achieved. Democracy does not only accept the game of action and reaction as an inevitable fact of social life. It also promotes this game, as long as it remains a game and does not become violent or a threat to democracy or to people’s rights and freedom.

Counter-intuitively, freedom does not always go hand in hand with control, although on an individual level this may be the rule. An individual is free if he controls his life. But a society is not free if people try to control consequences and the future. Unpredictability does not mean that people are not free to choose their future. They are just not certain that the future will be the one they have chosen. It’s when they want this certainty that they are tempted to destroy the freedom of society. When people want to be certain of their goals and want to be in control – when, in other words, they want to be free – they need to eliminate interference from other people and other goals. Other people with other goals become a nuisance, and their freedom has to be sacrificed. However, this may not result in control. It is far from certain that the elimination of reaction is possible. It may be counterproductive and create more reaction than initially anticipated. Plurality is probably unavoidable.

Types of Human Rights Violations (1): Fake Zero-Sum Human Rights Violations

We usually, and correctly, think of human rights violations as a zero-sum game (although the word “game” is hardly appropriate here). A rights violation is a harm inflicted by one person on another, for the benefit of the former. And although the benefits for the violator do not always equal the harm for the victim in a quantitative sense, we can safely call it zero-sum. In fact, neither the harm nor the benefits that result from rights violations can always be quantified.

I have represented these harms and benefits in the table below (just look at row number 1 for the moment): a plus sign for “violator value” means that he or she receives some benefits from the violations (otherwise there probably wouldn’t be a violation); a minus for “victim value” means a harm done to him or her. And indeed this is the usual case. But you can see in the table that other combinations of values and signs are possible. But more on that in a moment.

The usual case – number 1 – is what we could call the typical human right violation. It’s zero-sum: the thief who steals from me gains what I lose; the oppressive government that limits my right to free speech or movement or assembly or organization, gains stability and regime security while I lose freedom. In case number 1, the violator always wins, and the person(s) whose rights are violated always lose(s), in roughly the same proportion (if proportions are at all relevant here).

The second, more exceptional case, occurs when not only the victim of the violations loses out, but also the perpetrator. Examples: the suicide bomber (except when he or she is right about Paradise, which I doubt); the use of torture, invasion, drone attacks etc. by the U.S. in its “war on terror” (tactics which may create more terrorists than they eliminate).

The third case is still more exceptional, unfortunately, because it is really a win-win situation, disguised as zero-sum. Two examples. Take the development of the economies of India and China. It can be argued that these economies “take jobs away” from the developed countries, and that in a sense the right to work of many people in the West are violated because of it (the fact that none of this is intentional isn’t sufficient to claim that no rights are violated). However, as these developing countries increase the size of their economies, they will provide valuable and relatively cheap goods and services to businesses and households in developed countries, stimulating the economies there, and boosting disposable income, which reduces poverty in developed countries. As developing countries develop, they will also start to consume more western goods and services, with the same result. Again, no guarantee of course that the gains of one will equal the gains of the other, but at least it’s win-win and not zero-sum.

A second example, also to do with work: when a government withholds or stops unemployment benefits, it violates the rights of the unemployed. But when done under certain circumstances, this will encourage people to find work, and hence will make them better off in the end.

At first sight, these two examples look like typical zero-sum human rights violations, but not when look a bit closer.

The fourth case, where the victim of rights violations benefits from them, and the perpetrators lose out, is extremely exceptional, I guess. I could only come up with one example: the dictator becoming so oppressive that he creates revolt and ushers in his own downfall and the liberation of his people.

The Causes of Poverty (24): Population Growth and Income Growth: Incompatible?

Some blame overpopulation for many of the world’s problems such as poverty, famine and war (which are obviously rights violations). There are supposed to be too many people for peaceful coexistence and sustainable food production. Those who worry about overpopulation are often called (neo-)Malthusians, and either predict a sharp fall in population levels because of the problems caused by overpopulation (a “Malthusian catastrophe”), or/and propose population control as a measure to solve these problems.

For pretty much all of human history, population growth constrained growth in real standards of living. That’s the “Malthusian Trap”: as standards of living improved, population increased, which put a strain on resources and drove down standards of living, which in turn drove down population growth, rinse & repeat. The industrial revolution broke this trap, although it’s worth pointing out the fairly obvious fact that this is not true for the entire world. Conor Clarke (source)

… over a roughly 3000 year period, during which there was obviously quite a lot of technological progress — iron plows, horse collars, mastering the cultivation of rice, the importation of potatoes into Europe, etc. — living standards basically went nowhere. Why? Because population growth always ate up the gains, pushing living standards back to roughly subsistence.

… technological change was slow — so slow that by 1600 or so, when England had finally reclaimed its population losses from the Black Death, it found real wages back to more or less 1300 levels again.

And here’s the sense in which Malthus was right: he had a fundamentally valid model of the pre-Industrial Revolution economy, which was one in which technological progress translated into more people, not higher living standards. This homeostasis only broke down when very rapid technological change finally outstripped population pressure for an extended period. Paul Krugman (source)

It’s clear that population growth can go hand in hand with income growth, and that it’s not correct to state that population growth necessarily leads to more poverty, which in turn leads to a reversal of population growth. But these compatible evolutions of population and income seem to require technological advances.

Note: my criticism of Malthusianism and other types of overpopulation hysteria (see here for some examples) is targeted only at deterministic theories which believe in overpopulation as the main if not only cause for the world’s problems, and which see overpopulation as a global problem. I accept that in certain specific areas of the world, population pressures can make things worse. But I don’t agree that these pressures are the sole or even the main cause of problems such as poverty, famine, war etc. And neither do I agree that population control is the main remedy for these problems. For example, we all know that water shortages – even very local ones – aren’t caused by overpopulation and won’t be solved by population control. More intelligent irrigation methods are the answer. And when we leave the local level and take the global point of view, the population problem is even less salient. On a world scale, income has grown systematically faster than the world’s population during the last centuries. Population pressures do not lead us to an inevitable “trap” as Malthus and his followers claim.

The Failure of “Trickle Down Economics”

Trickle Down Economics, also called Reaganomics (due to its association with the policies of Reagan and Thatcher) or supply-side economics, is the theory according to which policies destined to alleviate poverty and redistribute wealth are unnecessary and even counterproductive. The rich should be allowed to become even more wealthy, by imposing very low tax rates on high incomes (or a flat tax for example) rather than using the tax system to redistribute wealth. The result will be that their wealth will “trickle down” towards those who are less well off.

When government policies favor the wealthy — for example, via tax cuts for upper-income classes — the increase in wealth flows down to those with lower incomes. That’s because the rich are more likely to spend the additional income, creating more economic activity, which in turn generates jobs and eventually, better paychecks for the less well-off. Michael S. Derby (source)

All boats rise on a rising tide. Redistribution is counterproductive because it will take away the incentives to do well, and hence also take away the possibility of wealth creation and subsequent automatic wealth distribution through “trickling down”. All this is reminiscent of laissez-faire and the invisible hand theory.

Reagan’s trickle down policies in the U.S. can still be felt today:

According to the Tax Policy Center, the top marginal tax rate in the U.S. stood at 70% when Reagan was elected in 1980, falling steadily to 28% by 1989, before it began to rise modestly. The top marginal rate now stands at 35% against a peak of 94% in 1945. (source)

These tax cuts were implemented with the support of the Democrats in the House, which explains why they have been upheld all these years. The result of this was, unsurprisingly, a higher concentration of wealth in fewer hands:

In the period since the economic crisis of the early 1970s, US GDP has grown strongly, and the incomes and wealth of the richest Americans has grown spectacularly. By contrast, the gains to households in the middle of the income distribution have been much more modest. Between 1973 … and 2007, median household income rose from $44 000 to just over $50 000, an annual rate of increase of 0.4 per cent. … For those at the bottom of the income distribution, there have been no gains at all. … incomes accruing to the poorest 10 per cent of Americans have actually fallen over the last 30 years. John Quigging (source)

This is already part of the refutation of the doctrine. Obviously not all boats have risen on the same tide. But if you don’t believe this, there’s a paper here and a blogpost here arguing against the doctrine in a more intelligent way. Maybe “spreading the wealth around” a bit and imposing some tougher taxes on the rich isn’t such a bad idea after all. I mean, the “tricklers” have had decades to prove their point, and failed; maybe now it’s time for the “spreaders” to have a go.

Income Inequality (16b): Its Moral Significance

Will Wilkinson’s recent paper on income inequality argues that it’s an overrated problem (see also here). Before I deal with his arguments in detail, a quick reminder of my personal views on income inequality. From the point of view of human rights (which is my default starting point), the most urgent problem is not necessarily the unequal distribution of wealth or income, but the insufficient wealth and income of the poor in a given population. The urgent problem is absolute poverty, rather than relative poverty. Or, in other words, what we have to tackle first is some people’s inability to gather sufficient resources necessary to survive in a decent way, not the fact that some people have more resources than others. The human rights of people in a very poor but highly egalitarian society can be violated more extensively than the human rights of the relatively poor in a society that is very rich on average but highly inegalitarian. Eliminating or reducing income inequality – or “killing the rich” (metaphorically) as in the image above – doesn’t necessarily help the poor.

However, inequality can be a problem. The absence of poverty or the availability of sufficient resources for a decent human life is a human right, but it isn’t the only human right (some would even say that it isn’t a right at all, but I disagree, together with the drafters of the Universal Declaration). Human rights also include political human rights, and these political human rights usually mean the right to democratic participation in government and legislation. Income inequality makes these political rights highly problematic. Democracy is based on the equal influence of every citizen, but income inequality, by definition, gives the wealthier citizens more influence in politics.

In addition, income inequality may also lead to social fragmentation, with negative consequences for the cohesiveness of a society. We see that highly inegalitarian societies, such as the U.S., are also societies with relatively low levels of social mobility. One could argue that income inequality isn’t much of a problem when everyone has the same chance to be on the good side of the inequality. But when it is combined with social rigidity and stratification, it undermines meritocracy and equality of opportunity, which in turn enhances social fragmentation.

Finally, people in more egalitarian societies tend to be healthier, to live longer and to be happier (as Wilkinson should know).

These are serious issues from the point of view of human rights. If reducing income inequality (for example through progressive taxation, public spending – on welfare, education, healthcare etc. –  and regulation of political funding and lobbying) can go some way towards a solution, we should consider it.

One last point: all these issues are based on the assumption that income inequality is the outcome of just processes. In other words, we assume that people’s incomes are the result of their own desert and effort. If, on the other hand, we assume – more correctly in my view – that income and wealth distributions are affected by unjust processes (such as colonialism, slavery, discrimination, inheritance and a lack of social mobility etc.) than we have additional reasons to do something about income inequality. And these reasons have nothing to do with the negative consequences of inequality. They are, instead, related to its origins.

(If you want to know more about my views on income inequality, before I tackle Wilkinson’s views, you can read this old post).

Wilkinson claims that

income inequality is a dangerous distraction from the real problems: poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and systemic injustice.

Those are real problems indeed, and even more urgent problems, as I’ve stated above. But income inequality is also a real problem, and I fail to see how one problem is necessarily a distraction from another problem. Human beings are perfectly capable of tackling several problems at the same time.

He also states that

there is little evidence that high levels of income inequality lead down a slippery slope to the destruction of democracy and rule by the rich.

That’s not true, as you can read here and here. Income inequality obviously doesn’t necessarily “destroy” democracy or replace it with “plutocracy”, but it significantly reduces its meaning, on both sides of the income gap: wealthy people use their wealth, their higher education, their networks etc. to gain influence, and poor people tend to participate less and thereby lose influence. While it’s true that wealthy people can use their political influence for the benefit of their poor fellow-citizens, it’s still a fact that many don’t. If we cherish democracy, we should implement policies that limit the risk of selfish interventions by disproportionately influential individuals or groups, as well as policies that encourage participation of relatively less influential individuals and groups. It’s not sufficient, as Wilkinson does, to point to the fact that many wealthy people voted for Obama, knowing that he would raise their taxes.

Wilkinson also believes that the level of American income inequality was not caused by exploitative, institutional mechanisms. Given the historical inheritance of slavery and discrimination, I think this opinion is false. This inheritance, combined with astonishingly high levels of correlation between parental income and the income of children, does suggest that there are institutional mechanisms which perpetuate income inequality. While it’s wrong to claim that the inheritance of racism and slavery is to blame for the poverty of African-Americans living today, it’s very likely that it has some effect.

Few people argue for a completely egalitarian society. I certainly don’t. Some inequalities are perfectly just, and probably necessary from the point of view of economic efficiency. But there are many who argue for the opposite: don’t do anything about inequality. While I don’t believe Wilkinson is one of them, his statement that “income inequality is a dangerous distraction” encourages those who believe that we shouldn’t care about inequality.

The Causes of Poverty (23): Better Healthcare = More People = More Poverty?

Investment in better healthcare results in lower mortality rates (especially child mortality rates) and larger populations. If more people have to live from an equal amount of resources, every individual has less resources. Hence there will be more poverty.

This reasoning is typical of Malthusians and others who fret about overpopulation. They forget, however, that high mortality rates and inefficient insufficient healthcare lead to high fertility rates because people decide to have many children in order to offset the risk of mortality. Better healthcare brings down fertility rates because it reduces this risk, but also because it leads to less poverty and hence eliminates another reason to have a lot of children: extra labor force.

Read more about this here.

Income Inequality (15): Progressive Taxation

Yes, I know… another post (and a long one) on income inequality, something which isn’t even a human rights issue, strictly speaking. I repeat, the most important thing to me is the provision of basic necessities, not the unequal distribution of these necessities. The fact that someone is poor and homeless is a more important problem than the fact that some people earn more or have bigger houses. Human rights address the first problem, not the second. When human rights address the problem of inequality, it’s usually not income inequality but other types of inequality (unequal rights, discrimination, unequal representation or access to information etc.).

What’s the problem?

However, as I stated here, income inequality IS a problem. It can destroy the cohesiveness of a society when it surpasses certain limits. People lose their self-esteem when they see that they are relatively worse off (even though not necessarily poor), especially when their position in society isn’t completely their own fault, which is often the case. People’s income, even in supposedly meritocratic societies such as the U.S. and the U.K., depends heavily on their family and social environment, and not only on their own achievements. Income inequality therefore becomes a problem of justice, social justice. And it can also become a problem for democracy, in which case it becomes a human rights issue (democracy is a human right). On top of that, people tend to be healthier and to live longer in more egalitarian societies.

And finally, this paper shows that

increased income (or wealth) generally does not increase … happiness significantly, and to the extent that it does, relative income plays a greater role than absolute income. In light of this … redistribution, via a progressive income tax, will increase people’s utility (happiness) by improving their relative incomes.

What can we do?

So, there are many good reasons to reduce income inequality, or at least slow down the trend of increasing inequality. There are also many ways to do this. Progressive taxation, rather than regressive taxation or a flat tax, is one way, as stated in the quote (and here/here). Public social spending is another way, as are some measure to increase social mobility and reduce the correlation between parents’ income and that of their offspring (e.g. an inheritance tax). Better funding for education, and helping lower income people gain access to education (by way of vouchers or scholarships etc.) is also good policy.

In the current post, however, I want to focus on one aspect of policy, namely taxation. I want to defend progressive taxation against regressive or flat taxation, not because of reasons of economic efficiency – although these are important – but because it is a policy which can reduce income inequality.

What is progressive taxation?

Progressive taxation (an idea going back to Adam Smith if not before) means that those with a higher income pay a relatively larger share of their income on taxes, and that this share rises progressively when income levels rise. Earning more means paying more taxes, both in absolute terms (the amount of taxes paid) and in relative terms (the percentage of income paid on taxes). A concept often used to describe this is “increasing tax burden”, but that is misleading, as Ezra Klein has pointed out. A person paying more taxes both in absolute and relative terms, doesn’t necessarily carry a bigger burden:

A strong person carrying a 50 pound bag may feel less burdened than a weak person carrying a 20 pound bag.

Even if the 50 pound is larger compared to the body weight of the strong and healthy person than the 20 pound is to that of the weak and sick person. Klein again:

The average after-tax income of the average person in the middle income quintile is $52,100. That’s down from about $60,700 after an effective tax rate of 14.2%. In the top quintile, the after-tax income is $184,400, down from $248,400 after a 25.8% effective federal tax rate. The rich person certainly pays more, both in absolute terms and as a share of income. But is his burden greater than the middle-income taxpayer left with $52,100? It’s hard for me to see how.

A progressive tax system can also be defined by comparing it to the so-called flat tax. A flat tax usually means that everyone pays the same tax rate. As a result, rich people pay more taxes in absolute terms, but the same taxes as poor people in relative terms. Proponents of a flat tax system say that it stimulates economic growth because it takes away less money from the wealthy, who can then invest it in the economy. Such higher growth in turn leads to more revenue for the government, and hence more means to benefit the poor, for instance. A flat tax also leads to more revenue because lower tax rates for the rich means that they will be less inclined to cheat or avoid taxes, and because its simplicity eliminates loopholes and deductions.

However, these advantages, to the extent that they are real, don’t address the inherent injustice of the system.

How do you make taxation progressive?

The “progressivity” of taxes can be achieved in different ways:

  1. The most obvious way: a higher income means a higher tax rate.
  2. Rather than increasing the tax rate together with increases in the taxable amount (usually the wage or other types of income), one can also choose to increase the taxable amount for wealthier people while leaving the tax rate identical for everyone. Wealthier people would then have a larger “tax base”. For example, they may have less exemptions, deductions, tax credits etc., or they may have to pay taxes on luxury goods that only they can afford to buy. With one and the same tax rate for all, we still are able to introduce progressivity. This looks a bit like the flat tax.
  3. Or one can decide to have, like in the previous case, only one tax rate rather than rates rising with income levels, and exempt from taxes all income below $50,000 or something. This as well is a progressive tax, because people with higher incomes pay more taxes, both in an absolute and a relative sense.

Progressivity can not be achieved by moving the tax system away from income and towards sales taxes, VAT or consumption taxes. Such taxes are by definition regressive, because they impose a relatively higher burden on lower income taxpayers, who, after all, spend a larger proportion of their wealth and income on consumption, and therefore pay a greater share of their income on taxes.

Other options?

As mentioned above, progressive taxation is only one way to reduce income inequality, and perhaps not even the most useful one. Yglesias and Kenworthy have shown that it’s not the tax system as such but targeted government spending that equalizes things. The important thing is to have a tax system that generates enough revenue to spend on counter-inequality measures (such as education, benefits etc.). Whether this system is progressive or not is secondary. According to Kenworthy, countries with higher tax revenues but not necessarily more progressive tax systems achieve more inequality reduction.

The Causes of Poverty (22): Poverty Trap – Why Being Poor Makes You Poorer

The poorer you are, the more things cost. For example, if you’re poor, it’s possible or even likely that you don’t own a car. That means it’s a lot harder to shop around for the best deals. It also means that you’ll prefer to shop closer at home in order to avoid carrying your stuff over long distances. Being poor, you probably don’t have time to spend hours in a bus to do your shopping (for example, you don’t have time because you don’t own a washing machine and have to spend time at the laundromat). So you shop at the corner shop, where everything is more expensive. The stuff there may not be as fresh as elsewhere, which may affect your long term health. Hence, you’ll probably spend more on healthcare and you end up deeper in poverty. It’s also a fact that the diet of many poor people is relatively high-fat, and that obesity is a big problem. Hence even more money goes to healthcare. And then there are the health consequences of having to go to extremes such as organ donation, blood donation etc.

If you want a loan to buy a house or something, you’ll pay a higher interest rate because of the risk that you, with your low income, will someday default. Hence you’re forced to pay rent which may be higher than a mortgage. And you are forced to rent in a low-income neighborhood, which comes with its own costs such as a higher risk of being a crime victim.

If you want a job, an employer may think twice about someone who has a relatively high health risk, doesn’t have a car, doesn’t live close to a business area, and is generally depressed about being poor. Etc. etc. etc. etc. And like this you spiral down until you finally crash.

Economic Human Rights (21): Sweatshops

Sweatshops don’t have a very good reputation. They impose degrading working conditions, low salaries, and long hours, and they expose workers to harmful materials, hazardous situations and extreme temperatures. In many cases, the workers are young women who are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation – including sexual exploitation – by their bosses. On top of that, many sweatshops violate child labor laws. Hence, sweatshops have been called a form of modern slavery, and not without reason. They indeed look like a microcosm of human rights violations.

Most, but not all, sweatshops are situated in the third world countries, where labor regulations are lax, salaries low and trade unions not very powerful. Third world countries also don’t have a high level of technology intensity in industrial production, making it profitable to employ manual labor. Western companies often outsource high technology factories in the West to low technology sweatshops in the South. In the West, sweatshops also exist, but mostly in the illegal economy.

However, many economists who can’t possibly be accused of heartlessness or indifference when it comes to the problem of global poverty, have defended them. There’s for example Paul Krugman, Jeffrey Sachs and Nicholas D. Kristof. They argue that the alternatives in many countries are worse. Sweatshops may insult our western sense of justice, but that’s because our economies offer in general much higher standards of work. In third world countries, sweatshops are a step forward for many people. Without the opportunity to work in a sweatshop, many of them would be forced into subsistence farming, garbage scavenging, begging or even prostitution. All these alternatives offer lower incomes and worse conditions.

Furthermore, many of the young women working in sweatshops see their employment as a way out of gender discrimination. It’s a form of liberation from the oppressive local and traditional systems in their rural hometowns. They move to larger industrial towns, earn a living, have their own rooms, and as a result they can escape an early (and often arranged) marriage and early motherhood. And without the burden of an early marriage and motherhood, they can develop their education.

Developing countries starting their manufacturing sectors in the form of sweatshops, can expect improvements elsewhere in their economy:

The growth of manufacturing has a ripple effect throughout the economy. The pressure on the land becomes less intense, so rural wages rise; the pool of unemployed urban dwellers always anxious for work shrinks, so factories start to compete with each other for workers, and urban wages also begin to rise. Paul Krugman

So it’s probably not a good idea to try and abolish sweatshops, or to boycott products produced in sweatshops. We may do more harm than good when we force people out of sweatshops and into other types of employment. What we have to do, however, is to promote better labor standards and working conditions in existing sweatshops, and do so realistically. Demanding immediate implementation of western standards is silly, given the level of development of third world economies, and would result in the end of sweatshops. But western companies that use or trade with sweatshops can be pressured to do something about the worst aspects of sweatshop labor.

What is Poverty? (2): Different Definitions of Poverty and an Attempt to Make Some Order

This is the World Bank‘s definition of poverty:

Poverty is an income level below some minimum level necessary to meet basic needs. This minimum level is usually called the “poverty line”. What is necessary to satisfy basic needs varies across time and societies. Therefore, poverty lines vary in time and place, and each country uses lines which are appropriate to its level of development, societal norms and values. But the content of the needs is more or less the same everywhere. Poverty is hunger. Poverty is lack of shelter. Poverty is being sick and not being able to see a doctor. Poverty is not having access to school and not knowing how to read. Poverty is not having a job, is fear for the future, living one day at a time. Poverty is losing a child to illness brought about by unclean water. Poverty is powerlessness, lack of representation and freedom.

And this is Wikipedia‘s definition:

Poverty is the deprivation of common necessities such as food, clothing, shelter and safe drinking water, all of which determine our quality of life. It may also include the lack of access to opportunities such as education and employment which aid the escape from poverty and/or allow one to enjoy the respect of fellow citizens. According to Mollie Orshansky who developed the poverty measurements used by the U.S. government, “to be poor is to be deprived of those goods and services and pleasures which others around us take for granted”.

The definition agreed by the World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen in 1995:

Poverty is a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to services. It includes a lack of income and productive resources to ensure sustainable livelihoods; hunger and malnutrition; ill health; limited or lack of access to education and other basic services; increased morbidity and mortality from illness; homelessness and inadequate housing; unsafe environments and social discrimination and exclusion. It is also characterized by lack of participation in decision making and in civil, social and cultural life. It occurs in all countries: as mass poverty in many developing countries, pockets of poverty amid wealth in developed countries, loss of livelihoods as a result of economic recession, sudden poverty as a result of disaster or conflict, the poverty of low-wage workers, and the utter destitution of people who fall outside family support systems, social institutions and safety nets.

The UN definition:

Fundamentally, poverty is a denial of choices and opportunities, a violation of human dignity. It means lack of basic capacity to participate effectively in society. It means not having enough to feed and cloth a family, not having a school or clinic to go to, not having the land on which to grow one’s food or a job to earn one’s living, not having access to credit. It means insecurity, powerlessness and exclusion of individuals, households and communities. It means susceptibility to violence, and it often implies living on marginal or fragile environments, without access to clean water or sanitation.

There’s also the very interesting definition by David Gordon in his paper, “Indicators of Poverty & Hunger“.

Poverty is the absence of any two or more of the following eight basic needs:

  • Food: Body Mass Index must be above 16.
  • Safe drinking water: Water must not come from solely rivers and ponds, and must be available nearby (less than 15 minutes’ walk each way).
  • Sanitation facilities: Toilets or latrines must be accessible in or near the home.
  • Health: Treatment must be received for serious illnesses and pregnancy.
  • Shelter: Homes must have fewer than four people living in each room. Floors must not be made of dirt, mud, or clay.
  • Education: Everyone must attend school or otherwise learn to read.
  • Information: Everyone must have access to newspapers, radios, televisions, computers, or telephones at home.
  • Access to services such as education, health, legal, social, and financial (credit) services.

And there’s the equally interesting but completely different definition by Peter Townsend:

Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the types of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or are at least widely encouraged or approved, in the societies to which they belong. Their resources are so seriously below those commanded by the average individual or family that they are, in effect, excluded from ordinary living patterns and activities.

There are, of course, many other definitions, but if we stick to these examples and summarize them, we can conclude that poverty is the impossibility to meet certain basic needs or the absence of certain necessities or resources:

  • food *
  • clothing *
  • shelter *
  • sanitation *
  • clean water *
  • health **
  • education **
  • work **
  • power **
  • representation **
  • freedom **
  • information **
  • trust in the future (absence of fear) ***
  • access to opportunities and choices ***
  • respect ***
  • self-esteem ***
  • dignity ***
  • inclusion, participation in social and cultural life ***
  • independence ***.

All of these needs and resources are valuable and important in themselves, but I think we can distinguish them according to certain types. For example, you’re not necessarily poor if you’re uneducated. I can think of many uneducated rich people. And all poor people aren’t necessarily without an education. So I would propose the following distinction:

  • Food, clothing, shelter, sanitation and clean water are needs that are directly linked to poverty. You are, by definition, poor if you lack one of these resources (and you may even die). I call these first-level-resources (marked with *).
  • Health, education, work, representation, power, freedom and information, are resources, the lack of which can (but doesn’t have to) make you poor – poor in the sense of not having the first types of resources – and the presence of which is necessary to escape poverty. I call these second-level-resources or supporting resources (marked with **).
  • Respect, self-esteem, dignity, inclusion, participation, trust in the future and the absence of fear, and opportunities, are resources which, like health, education etc., you may lose when you become poor, but which do not really help you to escape poverty. I call these third-level-resources or concomitant resources (marked with ***).

When looking at the different definitions cited above, we also see that poverty has many dimensions:

  • A material dimension (food, clothing etc.)
  • A psychological dimension (respect, self-esteem, trust, fear)
  • A political dimension (power, representation) and
  • A social dimension (education, health, work).

The latter 2 dimensions point to the fact that poverty, while often suffered alone and in solitude, requires social cooperation if it is to be eliminated.

The material, political and social dimensions can, to some extent, be measured, which is necessary if we want to have an idea of the importance of the problem, its evolution over time, and the effectiveness and success of policy measures aimed to combat poverty. One can measure nutrition, housing, income, access to certain services, standard of living, quality of life etc.

The psychological dimension is much more difficult to measure, but no less important. This dimension also shows us that poverty is not just a matter of the current state one is in, and the resources one has or doesn’t have. It is also about vulnerability, about the future, about trust and fear. And it also has a relative side (obvious from the Townsend definition given above), which attaches itself to the problem of our current level of resources (the absolute side): poverty means comparing yourself to others, feeling like a failure, humiliated, shameful etc.

Income Inequality (9): Absolute and Relative Poverty

The problem of poverty and related problems such as income inequality have received a lot of attention on this blog, because I consider poverty to be one of the most urgent human rights problems. Now and again, I’ve also mentioned the possibility of distinguishing between different types of poverty, and one such possibility in particular, namely the difference between absolute and relative poverty. Absolute poverty meaning the lack of basic resources, and relative poverty meaning income inequality.

I’ve taken the view that absolute poverty is a more urgent priority than relative poverty, and that therefore measurements of income inequality – such as the Gini coefficient – are less relevant than measurements of absolute poverty – such as the $1 a day measure. It’s the absolute income of people that matters, not the fact that other people are richer than you are and can afford more luxuries, at least from a human rights point of view (the absence of a certain minimum amount of basic resources is a human rights violation in itself and renders many other human rights meaningless).

Inequality of wealth or income is less urgent than the fight against absolute poverty, and a lot of opposition to income inequality can be easily categorized as the politics of envy. If inequality really matters it is the inequality of opportunity and other types of inequality not related to wealth (<discrimination for example).

But this is perhaps putting it too strongly. There are negative effects of high levels of income inequality, for example on the adequate functioning of democracy. There is also a correlation between relative poverty and absolute poverty: countries with relatively unequal income distribution don’t score well on absolute poverty measures either.

Richard Wilkinson has pointed out, some time ago already, that relative poverty matters. Once economic growth has pushed up absolute (albeit average per capita) income levels and done away with penury, people tend to be more healthy and live longer if levels of income inequality are relatively low. Countries with lower per capita income levels but also lower income inequality, can do better in terms of public health than high income countries with higher levels of income inequality. Poorer countries with a more equal wealth distribution are healthier and happier than richer, more unequal ones. There’s also a link between inequality (measured not by Gini but by way of the concentration of wealth in the 10% richest people) and both life expectancy and child mortality.

Some of the reasons for this are the stress of living at the bottom of the pecking order, the stress of disrespect and the lack of esteem and respect (including self-respect).

The Causes of Poverty (12): Protectionism

Few propositions command as much consensus among professional economists as that open world trade increases economic growth and raises living standards. N. Gregory Mankiw

Types and justifications of protectionism

Most governments in the world apply restrictions on the international trade of goods. They limit the imports into their countries by way of different measures:

  • Import tariffs (or taxes – “duties” ’96 on imported goods)
  • Regulatory legislation (e.g. public health legislation or sanitation legislation, “purity” legislation etc.)
  • Quotas (limits on quantities of certain goods that can be imported)
  • Anti-dumping laws (laws against selling below production cost)
  • Government-imposed monopolies on the sale of certain goods
  • And other measures.

They do so in order to protect local producers and farmers against foreign competition. That is where the word “protectionism” comes from. The reasons they state for introducing these measures are usually the following:

  • Someone else did it first.
  • Labor in other countries is cheaper, and therefore the products are cheaper.
  • Labor in other countries may be forced labor, e.g. in prison camps.
  • Labor in other countries may be child labor.
  • Governments’ first duties are towards their own citizens.
  • Countries should be self-sufficient and should protect certain important industries such as the food and energy industries, so as not to depend on foreign countries, even if the local products are more expensive than their foreign equivalents.
  • It may take some time for industries to become fully operative. Before that, countries can protect these industries by shielding them from foreign competition.
  • It is more environmentally responsible to consume local goods than products that have to be transported over thousands of miles.
  • Free trade favors the stronger party in a deal, and hence is neocolonial. The outcome of a free deal between unequal partners means more inequality.
  • Free trade encourages off-shoring and outsourcing, and hence job losses in the unprotected markets.
  • Etc.

Many of these justifications are also commonly used in the debate on globalization. (I will not examine the merits of these arguments here ’96 although I believe that some have some merit – because this post deals with the rationale of trade liberalization, not protectionism.)

Both developed and developing countries uses these measures to protect their own producers.

Another distortion of free international trade comes in the form of subsidies for the production of goods to be exported. This is also a protectionist measure because the aim is to protect industries in difficulties, industries which would have problems selling their goods abroad at normal prices.

Origins of protectionism

As is apparent from the quote above, these measures are usually not inspired by economic thought, but emanate from political concerns. Pressure groups in different industries lobby the government and try to have specific protections put in place. At the same time, however, the international community of states has been involved in trade liberalization negotiations (GATT, WTO etc.) that have been going on for decades already and that should result in the scaling down of the different protection measures. Some success has been achieved so far but the talks are still going on.

Trade liberalization and poverty

One of the aims of these negotiations is the reduction of poverty around the world. But does liberalization of farm trade help the poor? I think it does. Free trade brings down the cost of some products, because it may be cheaper to buy these products elsewhere than to produce them yourself. The cost of producing them yourself may be higher than the cost to produce them elsewhere (e.g. because of the climate in your country, or the available knowledge etc.), even if you include the profit margin of the seller in this cost.

Also, international trade’a0allows countries to specialize in certain products only, and specialization increases productivity and diminishes prices (see also the concept of comparative advantage).

There’s yet another reason why free trade may bring down the price of goods. Normally, if trade is free and restrictions on international trade are abolished, then competition will increase. And when competition increases, prices tend to go down.

So there are several reasons why free trade brings down prices. And when prices go down, consumers pay less. And when people pay less, they are generally less poor.

Import tariffs

Also, when import tariffs are cut in trade liberalization measures, prices for the consumers in importing countries go down, and exports in relatively poor export countries go up. So this would help the poor everywhere, the poor consumers in importing countries, and the poor producers in exporting countries.

However, when import tariffs are cut, local production in some countries will go down because local companies will have to compete with lower priced goods from abroad, lower priced because of the absence of tariffs, but often also because of cheaper foreign labor. With job losses as a consequence and hence more poverty for the people working in certain sectors of the economy. Consumers in general may be better off, but not those working in the industries that were protected by tariffs. For them, the benefits of cheaper products may be outweighed by the financial loss of losing their employment.

Furthermore, the government loses tax revenues when tariffs are cut, and therefore may be less able to provide a social safety net to cushion the adverse effects of competition.

However, most economists believe that removing tariffs and having free trade would be a net gain for society (for some evidence of this see here and here).

Import quotas

Import quotas limit the number of foreign goods that can enter a country and be sold there. This increases the prices of the goods because the supply is limited, and also because many of the foreign goods are cheaper than the local equivalents (mostly because of cheaper labor costs abroad). Restrictions on competition push up prices as well. Eliminating quotas therefore lowers prices and benefits the poor.

However, similarly to import tariffs, quotas protect local producers because they suffer less competition from foreign producers. Quotas can save jobs and therefore diminish poverty. But the people in these saved jobs are less numerous than the total population of consumers who benefit from lower prices (and they are also consumers themselves).

Quotas, contrary to tariffs, do not generate tax revenue, so there abolition would not cut into government benefits.

Export subsidies

Export subsidies depress prices and make it harder for non-subsidized producers, often in the poorer countries, to compete. Many local producers and workers will go bankrupted when the same products that they produce, are freely imported from countries where their production is heavily subsidized, sometimes to the extent that they can be sold below production price.

However, the initial effect of slashing export subsidies is an increase in prices of goods. Take the important example of food prices or prices for farm products. Even in rural societies, most people buy more food than they sell. Slashing subsidies would therefore hurt the poor because it makes it more expensive for them to buy food. The World Bank has estimated that slashing all farm subsidies would lead to a 5% increase in average prices. However, net food buyers are generally richer than net sellers; higher prices therefore transfer income from the rich to the poor, on average. Moreover, even the poor who buy more food than they sell (and those who do not sell at all), may benefit from higher prices for farm products because these higher prices boost demand for rural labor and push up wages for farm workers. The farm sector as a whole grows because of an increase in profitability, and this creates employment.

The World Bank has argued that the net effect of all these elements (price increases because of slashing subsidies, higher wages in farm jobs etc.) is positive for the poor.

Conclusion

Free trade helps the poor, and the ongoing trade liberalization talks in the framework of the WTO should be pursued. But at the same time it should be made clear that free trade is not a miracle solution. Poverty has many causes and many solutions and should be attacked from many fronts at the same time.