A Would-Be Philosopher-King Offers His Optimal Tax Policy

If I had any real power I would tax you all in the following manner:

First, I’d impose a consumption tax such as a VAT on traded goods and services. The consumption tax will have to be progressive, for example by way of a 0% tax on food and other basic necessities and a rate close to 100% for luxuries. A consumption tax encourages savings and investment and does away with the disincentives of income and payroll taxes which it will replace (disincentives to work, earn and hire). It also puts a stop to wasteful conspicuous consumption and status competition, at least at the top end. The sharply decreasing marginal utility at high levels of consumption means that the tax can indeed be strongly progressive, with close to 100% rates at very high levels of consumption. Such a strongly progressive consumption tax will leave incentives in place: a $1 million dollar home motivates just as well as a $200 million home, because people mostly care about how they are doing relative to similar others and all similar others will be subject to the same taxes.

Second: add an inheritance or estate tax because the wealthy, who will save more as a consequence of the consumption tax, will die with larger estates than before. Inheritance is inherently unfair because undeserved. A tax on inheritance not only reduces this unfairness, but does so without distorting incentives. Most other types of taxes have disincentive effects: when an activity such as consumption, investment, employment or pollution is taxed, the activity becomes more expensive. Hence, people will to some extent disengage from the activity (consume less, hire less employees, invest less, pollute less) or find ways to reduce their tax burden (offshore profits or assets, fail to declare income etc.). Disengagement is good in the case of pollution and consumption, but not for investment and employment. An inheritance tax is one that doesn’t have disincentive effects. People will not die less when wealth and assets are taxed after death. This tax is therefore sustainable, in addition to being moral.

It’s a kind of wealth tax. Wealth taxes, including an inheritance tax, promote consumption and are in conflict with the stated aims of a consumption tax (see above). But in the case of inheritance tax that’s a reasonable price to pay. Other wealth taxes – with one exception (see below) – will have to go, precisely for this reason, as well as other reasons: wealth taxes are difficult (they are a percentage of the taxpayer’s calculated net worth – total assets including cash deposits, real estate holdings, investments, trusts and shares in businesses, minus debt – and this net worth is difficult to valuate and easy to offshore); and they raise liquidity problems (the taxpayer may have to sell part of her assets in order to pay the tax, which will increase the supply of assets and drive down their prices, making wealth creation less attractive and possibly undermining the wealth tax). So, although a wealth tax is perhaps a fair tax – wealth is more concentrated in the hands of a very small elite, compared to income – it’s not necessarily a good idea.

Third: add a land value tax. This is a wealth tax, but not really a real estate tax, because the largest part of the value of real estate is the value of the land, not the value of the buildings. It doesn’t cost much more to build a house in Manhattan than to build an identical one in the Midwest. The house in Manhattan is much more expensive because it’s on Manhattan land. A land tax is similar to an inheritance tax: no one built the land, so people will not have less land when it’s taxed. And because no one built it, no one can be said to deserve it. So no incentives arguments against a land tax, and a strong moral argument in favor of it. Just as with inheritance.

Fourth: add some pigovian taxes (taxes on carbon and other externalities such as pollution, congestion etc.).

Fifth: abolish all other taxes, including taxes on investment income or normal income, on corporate profits, on labor/employment etc.

This system yields our tax revenues. A tax system can be justified on different grounds, and I’ve already mentioned a few, namely fairness, incentives (incentives to consume less, to save and invest more, to avoid pollution…) and efficiency (ease of tax collection and tax calculation). But an important justification of a tax system is its general purpose. What do we want to do with the tax revenue? Apart from the obvious goals – public goods such as a police force, a judiciary, a national defense, infrastructure, some regulatory agencies, public education, healthcare etc. – my main concern is welfare, or social security as they say in Europe. And like an increasing number of people I want to propose that we use our tax revenues to fund a universal basic income system which will replace all or most of the existing government support measures such as unemployment benefits, pensions, food stamps etc. I’ve defended the UBI in more detail before so I won’t burden this already longish post any more than necessary.

Now tell me why I’m wrong.

The Ethics of Human Rights (82): The Link Between Human Rights and Social Mobility

Most of us think about social mobility as some kind of political ideal or even as a necessary feature of a just society. Many theories of justice make space for social mobility, as they do for equality of opportunity, fairness, the wellbeing of the worst off etc. And indeed, it’s hard to be against social mobility. Cynics might say that politicians extol the virtues of social mobility in order to camouflage or even justify actual inequalities (“if people can be socially mobile, then the resulting inequalities are deserved”, or “inequalities aren’t bad because people can be mobile and escape their class”). However, it’s not because a concept is misused for political reasons that it loses it’s theoretical or even practical value. If democracy is used as a cover to invade Iraq, then that doesn’t mean democracy is bad.

Hence, we should embrace social mobility. Human rights as well are often seen as a political ideal or a requirement of justice. How do social mobility and human rights relate to each other? At first sight, there’s no relationship at all, except that both are part of a lot of theories of justice. Social mobility is about the possibility to enter another – usually higher – income class than the one you were born in (the one of your parents). Human rights, on the other hand, are generally silent about income, except in rare cases such as the right to a decent standard of living or the right to unemployment insurance. And those cases are about minimum levels of income, not about the equal opportunity to achieve any level of income. Most human rights aren’t about income at all, let alone changes in income. Hence, social mobility is not required by human rights.

Does that mean that a society without social mobility can be one where all human rights are perfectly respected? It depends. Let’s imagine a kind of Dickensian society in which everyone knows their place. Poor people have poor children. Those poor children also have poor children. And all poor people die poor. Same thing for the rich. At first sight, such a society, or even one closely resembling it, is free of rights violations, and yet it clearly does not value human equality. And if you look more closely, it doesn’t really value human rights either. For instance, it’s likely that this society does not offer equal rights to education, for if it did some poor people would break ranks. Neither does such a society respect non-discrimination rules at work. Companies and government employers are probably very classist in their employment decisions, otherwise one would tend to see some poor again breaking ranks. Non-discrimination rules are human rights, and this is therefore another example of the way in which human rights are violated in a society lacking social mobility.

In short, a Dickensian society like the one described here has to be extremely classist and has to marshal extensive means in order to keep people in their place. It can only do so by way of massive violations of some human rights.

While a society like this is the exception in our modern world, there are many societies that resemble it. As a rule, we can say that societies with less than average social mobility will have more than average rights violations, all else being equal. Hence, social mobility is relevant to human rights in the sense that an effort to suppress social mobility almost always has an impact on the level of respect for human rights.

I guess this means that a society without social mobility can never be one where all human rights are perfectly respected. One can imagine a society in which there’s no discrimination, equal rights, no poverty and equal opportunity, but in which people are still socially mobile. A child of middle class parents can turn out to be a genius and enter the top earning class. Even in human rights utopia, one doesn’t want to enforce equal pay for everyone because incentives are good (in general). Vice versa, the children of genius parents can turn out to be average and end up in a lower income class. If this doesn’t happen, one can assume discrimination and favoritism.

The opposite isn’t the case: a society without social mobility can never be one where all human rights are perfectly respected, but a society with social mobility can be a brutal dictatorship:

Imagine a dictator who imprisons his subjects, but gives wealth and power to some chosen at random. There’ll be a lot of social mobility, but no justice or liberty. (source)

This shows that social mobility, although difficult to dismiss, is not enough because it does not require freedom and rights. It can even hide and justify deeper injustices. It’s also not enough because it removes attention away from the conditions of life in the lowest income strata. Instead of making it easier for people to enter higher income strata, it’s often better to improve their lives where they are: make their jobs better and more pleasant; give them a say in their companies; focus on the content of their jobs etc. Often, that is what they want rather than a higher station in life.

More on social mobility is here. Other posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (72): How Unemployment and the Incentive Theory Aggravate Poverty

Not all poor people are unemployed. Even in developed countries some of the poor are “working poor“, i.e. people who have an income that is below the poverty line. Hence, if some who work for a living can’t make ends meet, it’s obvious that the unemployed are even more at risk of being poor. At best, the latter only have a temporary replacement income in the form of unemployment benefits. This income is often lower than even the lowest wage income, and in most countries it’s also limited in time. Hence, poverty is the likely result of unemployment, even in wealthy countries.

To some extent, this result is intentional: governments want to “incentivize” people and “nudge” them into the labor market. High unemployment benefits that aren’t limited in time – combined with the fact that many jobs don’t pay enough to avoid poverty – may trap some people in unemployment. Low and limited unemployment benefits, on the other hand, invoke the horror of poverty which in turn may force people to look for work.

It’s obvious why many unemployed people are poor – their incomes are just too low, and intentionally so. But why are poor people unemployed? The incentive theory tells us that poor people shouldn’t be unemployed. The horror of poverty should drive them out of unemployment. While some people are probably “incentivized” in this way, this is not something that will work for all the unemployed poor. It will only work for all the unemployed poor if jobs are abundant, and indeed that’s what the incentive theory assumes. Of course, this assumption is wrong. There’s something called the natural rate of unemployment. Even in the best of economic circumstances, there’s always some level of involuntary unemployment, and during recessions, this level is higher than normal. During a recession (starting from 2008 in this case) more poor people than normal indicate that their unemployment is due to their “inability to find a job”.

So, there are no conceivable incentives that will push all unemployed poor into the workforce, not even at the best of times.

Notice how the inability to find a job is just one reason among many, and definitely not the most important reason why poor people don’t work. Choice (“home or family reasons”) is another reason. And that’s one which can sometimes be influenced by incentives. However, the reason that’s cited most frequently, namely “sickness or disability” cannot. The horror of poverty will not force you into employment if you can’t work for health reasons. Hence, even if we assume, unrealistically, that there is an abundance of jobs and no natural rate of unemployment, it’s unrealistic to assume that all poor unemployed people will one day join the workforce.

This has implications for the incentive theory. If you put too much emphasis on incentives, you’re likely to put unemployment benefits at a very low level with a strict time limit. After all, the closer the horizon of poverty, the more likely that people will act and look for a job. However, if there are not enough jobs or if people have other reasons why they won’t work, then they won’t work. And if unemployment benefits are stingy, then these people will become poor. Incentives don’t always work as intended. Sometimes they may even cause poverty.

Now, I do agree that work is important and that we should therefore try to get as many people in jobs as we can (and, by the way, improve the quality of those jobs; that’s also in the book). Not only because working people normally – although not always – are less at risk of being poor, but also because work is important in human flourishing. I also agree that incentives can play a role in getting people to find work, and that the specter of poverty can be used as an incentive. However, we should be careful with this particular incentive. It may work sometimes, but often it doesn’t.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (70): Rich People Not Giving Enough Money to Poor People, Ctd.

In a previous post I looked at some of the reasons why rich people don’t give more money to poor people, and I assumed that the stories people tell themselves have a lot to do with it. Here’s a bit more about this.

The distant poor are the first to be removed from our stories. Archaic and morally dubious notions such as the “national family”, national solidarity etc. are advanced to justify this move. These notions may be linked to certain pragmatic arguments justifying the focus on the poor within our borders: poverty alleviation requires redistribution, redistribution requires a welfare state – adequate taxation and a strong government able to enforce redistributive programs – and there’s no such state on the global level. The merits of this argument are dubious: there are many ways to combat poverty beyond the national welfare state – international development aid, charity, an open borders policy etc.

Another pragmatic argument in favor of focussing on the poor in our own countries goes like this: it’s better for people to help others who are close by, because closeness comes with knowledge about the needs of those who should be helped and about the best ways of helping them. There are also problems with this argument: our poor compatriots are probably as distant to us as the poor in Africa; those who are close to the distant poor are probably poor as well and therefore unable to help – or at least will find it much harder to help compared to people in the rich parts of the world whose marginal utility of the next dollar of income is only a tiny fraction of the utility that the same dollar would provide to the distant poor.

Whatever the merits of these arguments, they help to explain why the distant poor are often removed from sight. The next step is to remove some of the non-distant poor as well. We don’t want to encourage begging, and that’s what we do when we give money to beggars. We want to make work more attractive than begging, and hence we shouldn’t give to beggars. We should even criminalize begging so as to encourage beggars to go find a job. That’s good for the beggars – at least in the long run – and for the rest of us as well because beggars may be a nuisance. Giving doesn’t just encourage begging and unemployment; it robs people of their agency, their self-reliance and their sense of responsibility. It traps them in dependence, and most of the time it encourages bad habits. How many beggars use their earnings to fuel their alcohol addiction? Never mind that alcohol may be the only thing that gives them some pleasure in life and that allows them to forget their misery, if only temporarily. And never mind that the same kind of paternalism is generally viewed as offensive when targeted at the non-poor.

But what about selection biases? Aren’t we more likely to give to some beggars and not to others? The old Mother Theresa like woman with the baby in her lap? The cripple showing off his amputated limbs? The clever beggar who has monopolized the busy intersection and who threatens competitors with violence? All in all, we’ll probably give to those who already get the most, and hence we don’t help the most needy. However, giving can take different forms, and handouts to beggars are just one option. If you’re worried about people abusing cash handouts, why not give them access to healthcare or food? If you’re worried about selection effects, why not make sure that everyone gets an equal share? And if you’re worried about dependency, why not give conditional aid: people only get cash or services when they prove that they are looking for a job, when their children attend school etc.

More posts in this series are here.

Income Inequality (27): What’s Wrong With It? No Moral Justification

The standard “no problem” explanation of income inequality goes as follows: people have different incomes because they have different levels of human capital and productive abilities. Some earn more because they contribute more – to their employers but also to society. They simply deserve, in a moral sense of the word, their higher incomes because of the level and nature of their contributions. Increasing differences in income levels are then simply the reflection of an increasing gap in productivity and human capital between some groups in society.

However, there’s something wrong with this story: it hints at one important element but fails to draw the necessary conclusion from it. Some people contribute more in a quantitative sense of the word, in which case higher returns are probably morally justifiable. If you work more, few would begrudge you your higher income. However, that’s not the type of income inequality that is most common. Usually, people are believed to contribute more in a qualitative sense of the word and get paid more as a result (or vice versa, because they get paid more, they are assumed to have contributed more in a qualitative sense). No one claims that the salary of a CEO should be higher than that of a taxi driver doing two other jobs on the side because the former works more than the latter. He probably doesn’t. The justification people give for a higher salary for the CEO is almost always about quality. (See also here).

Now, how does a society decide which types of contributions are of a higher quality and are therefore more deserving of higher remuneration? In part, the “market” decides: skills and contributions that are highly valued by consumers will earn you a higher income. But biases, prejudices and market manipulation are also factors that determine which contributions are valued higher. For example, there’s a widespread bias in favor of people with a university degree even though their objective skills may not always be higher than those of less educated people; advertisement and popular culture instill the perception that beautiful people are more deserving; stars in sport and music are believed to deserve a very high income, higher than that of the “stars” in science for example. And then there’s the perfectly circular reasoning that some contributions are more deserving because they yield higher earnings.

Many of these social decisions about desert are arbitrary, biased, irrational and unjustifiable. And in no case is there an attempt to justify them on moral grounds. Hence, you cannot conclude that more productive contributions are a moral justification for higher income levels if you first fail to justify which types of productive contributions are morally superior and more deserving.

You could counter this by saying that all skills and contributions, no matter in what field, are in and of themselves sufficient to warrant higher pay. But then you admit that all skillful and productive people across different fields should earn similar incomes, and that is plainly not the case. 

So, even if income inequality could be justified on a moral basis – by first deciding in a rational and unbiased way which skills and contributions are morally superior and then paying more to those people who have been identified as having more of those skills and contributions – that is not how it’s done in practice. And I doubt that it can be done, because there will never be agreement on the choice of morally superior skills and contributions.

Of course, the absence and, presumably, impossibility of a desert based argument for income inequality doesn’t mean that there can’t be other, more successful justifications of income inequality. The most common one is based on incentives rather than desert. We want people to do good, worthwhile and valuable things, and generous rewards for the skillful and productive is one way of having these things. Again, there’s the problem of deciding in an unbiased and rational way which things are indeed valuable, but we may assume that the market offers a close approximation: what people want to buy and consume will often be valuable to them. Perhaps not always valuable in the sense of “valuable after rational reflection free of biases”, but that sense may be unrealistic anyway. So let’s accept – grudgingly in my case – that we don’t have to decide what exactly needs to be incentivized and what is worth incentivizing.

However, even if we assume that value and desert equal market success, there’s a problem with the incentive based argument for income inequality. It’s not right to force morality through the payment of incentives. Ideally there should be good will, and people have to do things of value for their own sake, not because they are incentivized to do it (as G.A. Cohen has argued numerous times).

The conclusion is that income inequality as it is now structured in all societies is not justified and probably not justifiable from a moral point of view. And that this is the only point of view from which it should and could be justified. Of course, the lack of a justification is only one thing that’s wrong with income inequality. More on what’s wrong with it is here, here, here and here.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (13): More Income Equality Makes Us More Free

Another reason not to worry too much about the supposed incompatibility of equality and freedom is the fact that an equal level of monetary resources promotes freedom. Money in the form of a relatively decent income allows us to choose from and engage in a wide variety of activities. It makes it possible for us to buy the commodities and services we want to buy, and consequently do with them what we want to do. (Of course, within the legal limits that determine what can be commercially traded and how traded goods can be used; e.g. we can’t buy people, and we can’t use the guns we buy to kill people). As a result, we have a wider choice of life plans and more means to pursue our chosen plan.

This is freedom in one sense of the word: more choice. Freedom in another sense, namely the ability to do what we want without interference, looks absolutely anemic compared to this. After all, what good is the absence of interferes when the world we live in offers us only very few options or none of the monetary resources to choose and pursue options. This freedom from interference is hardly valuable, if it is freedom at all.

So, if we agree that monetary means promote freedom in a certain sense of the word because these means broaden our sets of choices, then I guess we’ll also agree that a more equal distribution of money, wealth and income promotes freedom: it gives people who receive more money in the new, more egalitarian distribution more freedom, without necessarily diminishing the freedom of those whose resources are diminished in the new distribution. The monetary freedom of the rich isn’t necessarily reduced after income redistribution and after reductions of income inequality, because of diminishing marginal utility. The ability to buy a fifth yacht doesn’t increase anyone’s freedom in any sense of the word. And taking away this ability doesn’t reduce anyone’s freedom. On the contrary, if the monetary means that could have been used for this fifth yacht are instead given to a number of other people who don’t have a lot of money, then these means will benefit the freedom of those other people, and aggregate freedom will have increased.

So that’s a good reason to reduce income inequality. However, it’s probably not a good reason to eliminate income inequality completely, for four reasons. First, even if, ideally, people have a right to the same extent of monetary freedom as it is defined here, that doesn’t mean they should have the same amount of money. In order to be able to do the same things and have the same choices, different people need different amounts of money. The handicapped, for instance, may need more than average.

The second problem with equal money is that it would mean deep and frequent violations of property rights, and property rights are important, perhaps just as important as freedom (and no, property rights and freedom are not the same thing: the former are a means to interfere with the freedom of others, namely the freedom of others to use goods that belong to you).

A third problem created by equal income is related to incentives. And finally, equal income doesn’t combine well with considerations of desert (one definition of desert is that people deserve different levels of monetary wealth for their contributions to society, culture etc.).

We could react to these different considerations by framing the issue as one of value pluralism: income equality and freedom are important values, and so are desert and property. The difficulty would then be to balance these different values which, it turns out, are sometimes contradictory. That would mean limiting the equalization of income at some point before total income equality, at a level that is compatible with respect for property rights (also limited), with due consideration of incentive problems (also limited), and with recognition of the moral value of desert (also limited).

There’s possibly some Gini value that would hit this balance. This Gini value of x gives a level of income inequality at which monetary freedom is maximized for a maximum number of people. A value lower than x (the lower the Gini value, the more equal the income distribution) resulting from higher levels of income redistribution would not increase the monetary freedom of the poor because the amount of money taken from the rich has become so high that it doesn’t just eat away at marginal utility but also produces disincentives high enough to reduce the size of total social wealth.

We could try this kind of delicate balancing between redistribution on the one hand and incentives produced by rewards for deserving actions on the other hand. (Alternatively, we could also drop income equality as a value and instead focus on a so-called sufficientarian approach in which we would try to give people enough monetary means to achieve a certain level of freedom – freedom as it is understood here – regardless of the means and freedom of the people at the top of the income or wealth distribution. However, I’ll leave that option aside for the moment).

However, there are some problems: we’re dealing here with a somewhat strange notion of freedom. Freedom is obviously much more than the use of monetary means to choose and pursue goals. Also, we don’t want to promote consumerism. The problem with consumerism is that the truly important parts of life can’t be bought, and that focusing on consumption tends to sideline those important parts. It also has ecological disadvantages.

And another problem I already mentioned: some people will be worse off if money is equalized because they need comparatively more money just to have the same capabilities. Hence, rather than equalizing money we should perhaps equalize capabilities.

More posts in this series are here. More on income inequality here. And here‘s a related post about the link between poverty and freedom.

The Causes of Poverty (55): Poverty of Aspiration

I think it was Aneurin Bevan who coined the phrase “poverty of aspiration”. It’s a variation on a common theme (other variations are the “culture of poverty” and the “undeserving poor“). According to some, what keeps people poor is their lack of aspiration. When faced with catastrophic or creeping adversity and bad luck, they give up and lose hope. As a result, they fail to invest effort, to try to make something of their lives and to persevere. Maybe in the end they simply lack the desire for anything better. And without such a desire, the idea of investing effort does not even arise.

If we go along for the ride and assume that lack of aspiration is indeed an important cause of poverty, then what in turn causes this lack of aspiration? Some mention stupidity, low IQ or the transmission of bad genes. Others cite fatalism as a common feeling among those who had a dose of bad luck or whose families have always been part of the lower classes: “people like us don’t succeed in life” and “we are destined to do low paying jobs or to be unemployed”.

I think that’s a very incomplete description of the causes of poverty. If some of the poor do indeed lack aspiration and if this contributes to their poverty, then we shouldn’t blame stupidity, genes or fatalism, but rather some of the stories we tell. Nowadays, we tend to believe that aristocracy and class society are things of the past and that we have developed in such a way that we now effectively reward effort and skill rather than class membership, at least most of the time. We do admit that luck still plays a role, but apart from luck people basically have a large set of more or less equal opportunities, at least in the West: we offer cheap education and healthcare, unemployment benefits and poverty relief etc. And even bad luck can be overcome with the right aspirations. Hence, the rich of today aren’t rich because they belong to the aristocracy but because they had the right aspirations when given the right opportunities. And the poor are poor, well, because they must have lacked aspirations.

An example of this kind of story is the powerful and widely accepted idea of incentives: we need to pay successful people a lot and tax them as little as possible, because then we reward success, and by rewarding success we promote it. The hidden assumption is that success is caused by effort and aspirations. If effort and aspirations are not the main drivers of success, then there is no reason to create incentives in order to promote and reward the effort and aspirations necessary for success. And if success would also, to some extent, be determined by talent or class membership, then incentives would be less effective or even useless: the talented will do well with or without incentives, because talented stuff is what they do; and those fortunate enough to have been born into privilege need no incentives either – they’ll do well without a high wage.

The incentive story is of course just one among many. The “Land of Opportunity”, the “American Dream”, the “Self-Made Man”, the “Rags to Riches” etc. are similar stories which assume and propagate the theory that poverty is the result of lack of effort and aspiration and that the poor in a sense deserve their social rank. The poor also are offered incentives and opportunities – today, few if any lack the opportunity to receive a good education (at least that’s what we like to believe). Hence, if they don’t succeed, it must be because they choose not to invest the necessary effort or because they lack the aspiration to succeed. This lack of aspiration can only be caused by their lack of character, or perhaps their stupidity and their failure to understand the benefits of investing in effort.

However, I don’t believe any of this adequately describes the average poor person. While some may indeed lack aspiration or perseverance, there are many other things that stand in way of success. After all, we’ve just had a major global recession that has hurt many people who aren’t particularly lacking in aspiration or character. And even in the case of those who can reasonably be accused of personal failings, we should admit that there can be a vicious circle at work. If people are continuously told that only intelligence, character and personality matter, and that all other external causes of poverty are discredited because society provides the opportunities to succeed, then people will start to believe that their predicament can’t be changed. It’s hard if not impossible to change one’s intelligence, character and personality. So why would you aspire to change it? If narratives about the poverty of aspirations are repeated often enough, the poor start to believe them. They internalize a sense of their own worthlessness. So, why try? A lack of aspiration, to the extent that it exists, follows directly from repeated stories about a lack of aspiration.

More posts in this series are here.

Income Inequality (25): And Economic (In)Efficiency

As I stated before, economic theory suggests that income inequality is a necessary price to pay for economic efficiency: unequal rewards incite those with talents, skill and perseverance to innovate and to be productive, so they can reap higher benefits. Ultimately, this serves the welfare of the whole of society (a process which is then caricatured in trickle down economics). The mirror image of this is reductions of inequality that take away incentives for doing well, and that therefore result in economic inefficiency and less prosperity for all.

Tyler Cowen has framed it like this:

Redistribution of wealth has some role in maintaining a stable democracy and preventing starvation. But the power of wealth redistribution to produce net value is quite limited. The power of wealth creation to produce net value is extraordinary … We should be putting our resources, including our advocacy and our intellectual resources, into wealth creation as much as we can. (source)

But is that really true? There is some evidence that reducing inequality through redistribution actually promotes wealth creation. What’s the mechanism? Sam Bowles claims to have identified one element of it:

Inequality breeds conflict, and conflict breeds wasted resources … [I]n a very unequal society, the people at the top have to spend a lot of time and energy keeping the lower classes obedient and productive. Inequality leads to an excess of what Bowles calls “guard labor”. (source)

More about that effect here and here. Other parts of the mechanism through which inequality impedes and equality promotes growth may be the following:

Poverty causes credit constraints. This stops the poor investing in businesses or education; the low aspirations caused by poverty can have the same effect. … Inequality can create the threat of redistribution which can blunt incentives to invest. Or it can lead to state interventions – such as the minimum wage – that harm wealth creation. … The backlash against wealth-creating processes such as globalization, offshoring and private equity in the UK and US are founded in the view that they create inequality. If we had better redistribution mechanisms (say, a basic income) such backlashes would be reduced, and the wealth creation process enhanced. (source)

That sounds persuasive and I want to see some evidence. In the meantime, it’s perhaps a bit glib to announce that “the power of wealth redistribution to produce net value is quite limited”.

The Ethics of Human Rights (53): Some Problems With Theories of Justice That Are Based on Desert

Some theories of justice claim that justice is mainly about giving people (or letting people keep) what they deserve. These theories are opposed to other types of theories about justice, such as those that claim

  • that people should have what they are entitled to have (or have a right to have)
  • that people should have equal shares (of goods, opportunities, luck etc.)
  • or that people’s outcomes should be distributed so as to produce the best aggregate outcome (as in utilitarianism).

These distinctions aren’t always as clear as that, and one could argue that deserving behavior generally maximizes the utility of aggregate outcomes or that people deserve equal shares or equal rights. However, the goal of desert based theories is usually to argue in favor of some form of inequality. Usually this is inequality of wealth, income or financial compensation for effort and success, but it can also be inequality of praise, punishment, positions, admiration etc. I’ll focus here on desert based theories of justice that argue that justice requires inequality of wealth.

Take a look at this quote:

When the wages of labour are hardly sufficient to maintain two children, a man marries and has five or six; he of course finds himself miserably distressed. He accuses the insufficiency of the price of labour to maintain a family. He accuses his parish for their tardy and sparing fulfillment of their obligation to assist him. He accuses the avarice of the rich, who suffer him to want what they can so well spare. He accuses the partial and unjust institutions of society, which have awarded him an inadequate share of the produce of the earth. He accuses perhaps the dispensations of providence, which have assigned him a place in society so beset with unavoidable distress and dependence. In searching for objects of accusation, he never adverts to the quarter from which his misfortunes originate. The last person that he would think of accusing is himself, on whom in fact the principal blame lies, except so far as he has been deceived by the higher classes of society. Thomas Malthus, An Essay on Population

Ideas like these have become somewhat unfashionable, but the basic idea of desert is still very powerful. Many of us accept that inequality of wealth or income is to some and perhaps even a large extent the result of effort, and that justice requires that we respect the results of deserving actions. We also believe that it is wrong to reward laziness or willfully bad decisions. Hence, there are some powerful and widely shared intuitions that makes desert theories rather appealing. Equality based theories that do not provide space for desert seem to be bound to reward laziness rather than effort. And because they reward laziness they create incentives to settle in it. As a result, one runs the risk of creating a permanent and quite large “parasite” class that lives off the efforts of the deserving elements of society. That seems unjust to those deserving elements, but also to those who are undeserving since the latter are not really given an incentive to be deserving: if they are compensated for their laziness and bad decisions, then they are never encouraged to work and decide rationally, and in a sense they are therefore treated unfairly as well.

Apart from this moral or even moralistic objection to theories that don’t make room for desert, there’s the economic argument that they can’t provide stable prosperity. Not only is there a non-productive underclass in an economy without unequal rewards for desert, but the productive class will not put up very long with what it sees as unfair transfers from its productive surplus to others who don’t deserve those transfers (which is the basis of the “going Galt” mythology). This rejection may even lead some to the conclusion that transfers are bad in general, including transfers to the so-called deserving poor (those who don’t have themselves to blame for their poverty). However, things may even get worse than that: rather than rebel against transfers to the undeserving (or deserving) poor, people will stop being productive in the first place because absent rewards for productivity they no longer have an incentive to produce. It’s obvious that prosperity will be impossible under those circumstances, as will – a fortiori – egalitarian transfers of prosperity. So it seems that egalitarian theories of justice are economically self-defeating if they don’t temper their egalitarianism with desert-based concerns.

All this would seem to make it very hard to argue against desert based justice, but that’s not really the case. However appealing the notion of desert, it has its own problems:

  • First, desert based theories seem to be too unforgiving. A small lapse in effort in your youth may have disastrous long-term consequences. An intuition that’s equally strong as the one in favor of desert says that it’s not fair to make people suffer decades after a youthful error.
  • Also, desert based theories are sometimes excessively cruel. Imagine a person starving to death because of her lack of effort and desert: does this person not have a legitimate claim to assistance, despite her irresponsible actions? Does anyone really deserve to starve to death, even if it’s completely and utterly her own fault? But if not, then desert is not sufficient as a criterion of justice and some egalitarian rules have to come in (for instance a rule based on the equal right not to starve to death). Purely desert based theories of justice have some hard bullets to bite.
  • And they also run the risk of promoting big government: if we have to reward desert and avoid transfers to the undeserving, then the government has to determine who is who. In other words, the government has to monitor people’s efforts and decisions in order to see whether their poverty is really undeserved and whether transfers are in order. That can’t be anything but very intrusive. Moreover, it’s probably going to be a failure since the information requirements are huge and difficult to meet.
  • And even if we would accept such an intrusive government for the sake of desert, we would still be left with some very hard decisions. Take the case of someone who is systematically unable to find a decent job. Suppose we can determine that she is indeed not very industrious in her search (we have records about her activities). Is that enough to claim that she is undeserving and therefore not entitled to transfers? Maybe her lack of effort is not really her free and conscious choice but the result of her upbringing, of long-term employment discrimination against people of her color, of some unknown genetic deficiency, of alcoholism developed during childhood etc. How are we to know?
  • Of course, we can confidently determine desert in some cases. Poor children and the severely handicapped almost certainly don’t deserve their predicament and no amount of effort will allow them to help themselves. But we tend to overstate our ability to detect desert. We’re usually too quick to blame and praise. And we’re eager to withhold assistance for people who we believe don’t deserve help but whose lack of desert is only apparent because we lack detailed information about those people’s biographies and endowments. Likewise we’re eager to compensate people whom we admire but whose accomplishments are only apparently the result of their own efforts (after all, not even the greatest genius can do anything without a tight web of support, including infrastructure, national defense etc.). Desert based theories of justice and the practices that they inspire are insufficiently attentive to biographies and to natural and social endowments (or a lack thereof), partly because we rarely have full knowledge of those biographies and endowments. Of course, we can err in the opposite direction and put too much emphasis on endowments, in which case we lapse into determinism. Choices matter, and therefore desert matters as well. The point is simply that desert is often very difficult to determine, and acting on the basis of uncertain desert can be harmful, especially if goods, punishments etc. are distributed accordingly.
  • Suppose we are able to know, in general and not exceptionally, who is or is not deserving. Then we still face the fact that we somehow have to decide which activities and pursuits are deserving, and there as well we can err. There’s a notion called “marketable skills”. What if someone’s skills are not marketable (maybe someone is a philosopher)? That person may be very deserving and may invest enormous effort in her pursuits, but is still living on the brink of starvation. If her pursuits are correctly viewed as undeserving or perhaps even immoral by society, then she won’t have a legitimate claim to transfers. But what if we are wrong? What if we should reward the pursuit but don’t? And I don’t have to show that we are regularly mistaken in the way in which we differentiate between deserving and non-deserving or less-deserving activities. Just look here. Proponents of desert based theories of justice might answer that we should simply be careful and thorough when determining which pursuits and outcomes are deserving or not. But that won’t solve the problem because there’s likely to be permanent controversy about the nature of deserving pursuits and outcomes. People with different worldviews will have different ideas about desert.

More about desert here (and more about overpopulation here). More posts in this series are here.

Economic Human Rights (37): Basic Income as an Alternative to the Welfare State

The welfare state is the name for a collection of different government policies and programs designed to help the poor. Those policies and programs may include healthcare benefits, unemployment benefits, old age pensions, child benefits, some types of education subsidies, aid to the disabled, food stamps, housing subsidies, minimum wage rules, collective bargaining rights etc.

The welfare state is criticized in a number of ways. I’ll just mention a few arguments against it, without going into much detail and without replying to them:

  • it creates dependency and destroys self-reliance, responsibility, effort and other virtues
  • it rewards the undeserving and promotes subsidized idleness
  • it violates property rights because the taxes necessary for funding welfare are a form of theft
  • it imposes slavery on the productive and the responsible because it forces them to work for the benefit of the lazy and the irresponsible
  • it destroys incentives for taxpayers to become productive
  • it’s self-destructive because it destroys the prosperity that it wants to redistribute (the destruction of incentives results in the destruction of prosperity), or because it renders poverty more attractive
  • it’s not sufficiently targeted to the most needy: wealthy families may get child benefits, and wealthy pensioners may get healthcare subsidies
  • it requires a heavy state bureaucracy that usurps the right to invade the privacy of potential welfare beneficiaries (in order to ascertain whether people deserve benefits: are people really unemployed or unemployable? does their health status merit health benefits? etc.)
  • it can be gamed and people may engage in welfare fraud.

Some of these criticisms are evidently more pertinent than others, but let’s not evaluate them one by one. If we assume that there’s some truth in some of them, then it may be worthwhile to look at some possible alternatives. People often propose non-state solutions such as private charity (enhanced and encouraged by way of tax policy, education etc.). An advantage of private charity is that it fosters solidarity, virtue and a sense of belonging. However, it’s also counter-cyclical in the sense that it’s least available when most necessary (e.g. during economic recessions). Moreover, it tends to be unreliable and unequal (it may not cover all the needs of all poor people all of the time).

Another possible alternative is to keep a system of state provision of welfare, but to radically alter the specifics of the system. For example, one could give people a guaranteed and unconditional basic income at a level high enough to cover basic needs. Every individual would receive the basic income whatever his or her predicament, current or future. It would be funded with tax revenues, and therefore wouldn’t be a reply to the theft and slavery criticisms of welfare, but those criticisms are weak anyway (because they imply that all state activity, including policing and infrastructure, are illegitimate). It would, however, be a strong reply to the privacy infringing aspects of the current welfare system. A basic income, since it’s unconditional, would not require intrusions into the private lives of citizens in order to ascertain whether they deserve a benefit or not. It would undo the complexity of many current programs and hence also remove the need for a large bureaucracy. And it would counter the charge of assisting the undeserving: although many undeserving would receive a basic income, few would complain about it since everyone would receive it. Welfare fraud also would obviously become impossible.

An added advantage of a basic income system of welfare would be that it allows people to take more risks. They know that they won’t be destitute if things don’t work out. More risk taking can be socially advantageous because it can result in more innovation, more productivity etc.

However, notwithstanding the set of advantages, a basic income system will probably not be a perfect substitute for existing programs. It’s questionable, for example, whether a basic income, even one that is set at the highest sustainable level, will be enough to cover certain catastrophic healthcare costs. In general, a basic income theory doesn’t take into consideration the fact that different people have different needs and abilities and therefore require different amounts of resources.

What is Equality? (2): Or, Equality of What?

As I mentioned before, when people talk about equality they mean equality of something very specific. The problem is, they hardly ever agree on the specifics. So it’s not uncommon to see two people talking about equality and actually talking about something completely different. And even when they’re talking about the same specific type of equality, they often disagree about its importance, its definition and its (lack of) merits.

Here’s a list of some of the types of equality that are frequently discussed:

  1. equality of respect and/or dignity
  2. equality of income or wealth (sometimes equality of consumption)
  3. equality of a bundle of basic resources needed for a minimally decent human life
  4. equality of capabilities
  5. equality of power (political and other power)
  6. equality of rights
  7. equality of luck or opportunity, i.e. equality of natural and social endowments.

I’ll skip the first one for now (I may come back to it in a later post) because it’s vague in its policy implications, and it’s those implications I want to focus on here. In fact, what do we want to do when we say that we want to promote one of the remaining 6 types of equality? And what are the likely problems we’ll face? Let’s go over them one by one.

2. Equality of income or wealth (sometimes equality of consumption)

Few people actually want to strive towards complete equality of income, wealth or consumption, for several good reasons.

  • First, people have different consumption needs and hence different income or wealth requirements. And I’m talking about needs, not preferences. People who prefer expensive stuff will have a hard time justifying the inequality of income or wealth that they require to satisfy their tastes. On the other hand, a blind person will have no difficulties making the case for a higher income. Preferences may also be problematic when they aim too low rather than too high. People who are born into deprivation and only see deprivation around them may adjust their preferences and expectations so that they are satisfied with their lives. However, it would be wrong to follow their preferences rather than their real needs.
  • And secondly, equality of income or wealth creates an incentive problem. See here. If people are not rewarded for their efforts, they may decide that their efforts aren’t worth their while, and society as a whole may be worse off as a result.

So equality of income is in fact shorthand for reduced income inequality. As we don’t want this type of equality to collapse into the next one (see number 3 below), let’s assume that we’re not talking about a society in which income inequality means that the people at the wrong side of the inequality are poor – poor in the sense that they lack the basic resources needed for a minimally decent human life. So, instead picture a society in which all prosper but some prosper a lot more than others.

Is that kind of inequality a problem? Many say it isn’t. Why should a university professor care about how much a business tycoon earns? However, income inequality in this sense can be problematic. It can, for instance, shock people’s notions of fairness and justice. If the professor successfully teaches her students about morality, and the business tycoon earns his wealth by polluting the earth, it may seem unjust that the professor should be rewarded less. Merit and desert are powerful ideals, and a society that systematically violates these ideals through its system of rewards may not be the ideal place to live.

Even if the tycoon earns his wealth by way of morally sound activities, there can be a problem of justice: perhaps he started life in an advantaged position compared to the professor, and therefore doesn’t (entirely) earn his rewards. Maybe the professor also wanted to become a tycoon, but her blindness forced her into a different career. (See point 7 below). And even if the starting positions are equal, the result of the tycoon’s wealth may be that he, compared to the professor, has a larger influence on democratic politics. (See point 5 below). This may destroy democracy, or at least result in a highly fragmented and therefore also unstable society.

So we have some good reasons to do something about this type of inequality. However, when we try to reduce – not eliminate – income inequality, we’ll probably reach a point at which redistribution starts to discourage people from being productive (the incentive problem mentioned above). Or not. Perhaps the loss of income they suffer because of redistribution makes them want to be more productive. Higher productivity can be the means to compensate for the loss of income. It’s not clear how strong these two possible effects are.

In any case, many of the problems caused by income inequality don’t need to be solved by way of reductions in income inequality. Unequal political influence generated by unequal wealth can be solved by limiting the influence of wealth on politics, rather than by limiting wealth.

More on income inequality here.

3. Equality of a bundle of basic resources needed for a minimally decent human life

Let’s now drop the assumption that we’re talking about a society in which all prosper, albeit unequally. That’s unrealistic anyway. Even in the richest countries on earth, there are many people who are unable to secure the bundle of basic resources necessary for a decent human life. There’s a theory called sufficientarianism that wants to focus, not on income inequality or relative poverty, but on absolute destitution. It claims, correctly I think, that all have a right to an equal bundle of basic resources and that this is what equality means.

The easiest way to make sure that people possess these basic resources is to give them enough money to buy them. For example, there’s a political movement advocating a guaranteed basic income (an income people receive whether they work or not; Philippe van Parijs is a notable supporter of this policy). But also employment benefits, healthcare benefits etc. aim to provide people with access to the basic resources necessary for a decent life.

The advantage of giving people money is of course that money is fungible: people can use it the way they want. That means it takes into account the fact that different people need different and different amounts of basic goods (take again the case of a blind person). If you give people basic goods directly, rather than the money necessary to buy them, then it becomes difficult to tailor the given goods to the specific and variable needs of individuals. An all-purpose means such as money is clearly better.

However, you’ll still have the problem that some people may need more money than others because they have basic needs that are more expensive, again not because of differences in taste or preferences, but because of different abilities. A blind person does not only need different resources but also more resources in order to lead a minimally decent human life. So we’ll have to factor in capabilities (see point 4 below). Hence, equality of basic resources, outside of the capabilities approach, isn’t enough. If that’s your goal, you won’t do justice to everyone.

An additional difficulty is that the composition of the bundles has to be different from one country to another, and not just from one individual to another. A minimally decent life in one society is more costly than in another one. In a highly industrialized and technological society, it’s more expensive to earn a living than in a society where, in a manner of speaking, you can just pick the fruit from the threes. If you add up all these differences in the content and quantity of the bundles you risk ending up with something very arbitrary. The whole concept of a basic bundle may lose its meaning.

Even if we assume that this type of equality does retain some meaning as a separate type of equality, we’re faced with the same incentive problem as in income equality, depending on how costly the bundle of resources is and how heavily we have to tax to produce it.

A final problem with this type of equality is one of fairness. The guaranteed basic income approach, as well as all other forms of unconditional provision of basic resources, seems to reward the lazy and punish the hard working. It’s reasonable to provide basic resources to people who are poor because of bad luck, lack of talents, bad health etc., but not to those who voluntarily choose not to be productive.

4. Equality of capabilities

So let’s turn to this next type of equality, which can be seen as a fine-tuning of the previous type. Why do we say that people need a bundle of basic goods for a minimally decent life? Because a minimally decent life means something. It means having the capabilities to engage in certain functionings that are part of a minimally decent life. These functionings include “beings and doings” (in the words of Amartya Sen), such as being nourished and in good health, taking part in community life, culture and thinking etc. People’s capabilities to achieve these functionings should be equalized. That doesn’t necessarily require a fixed and equal basic income. On the contrary, because a fixed basic income does not take into account the different levels of incapability across individuals. Some people need no help whatsoever. Others may need a lot. The blind person mentioned a few times already may need more than the average poor person, but perhaps less than a particular person who’s very deep in poverty.

The problem with this type of equality is the precise determination of the list of functionings and capabilities that really matter and that should be equalized. There’s a risk of paternalism, a lack of neutrality and a sectarian bias. Maybe a democratic approach to this determination can solve that problem. And that’s the link to the next type of equality.

5. Equality of power (political and other power).

In a democracy, people have – formally at least – equal political freedom. They all have the right to vote, to voice criticism or support, to campaign and demonstrate, to assemble and associate, and to stand for office. However, a lack in some of the other types of equality mentioned above may reduce the fair value and effectiveness of this democratic equality for a certain number of citizens, e.g. the poor, the blind, etc. As already argued, even prosperous citizens can have unequal power in a society with large income discrepancies (remember the professor and the tycoon).

So, if we want to promote this kind of equality of power, we first need to promote other types of equality. People may need access to basic resources in order to have the time and energy to devote to politics. And some of these resources are directly necessary for political participation (people have to drive to the polling station, read the newspapers etc.). However, equality of power can also be promoted without first promoting other types of equality. We can regulate campaign financing and access to the media and thereby limit the influence of wealth on politics. We don’t necessarily need to reduce wealth inequality to do that (although there may be other reasons to limit wealth inequality, see above). Equality of power, therefore, doesn’t necessarily collapse into other types of equality. It’s a concept that merits a separate existence.

Equality of power isn’t just equality of political power. Slaveholders have power over their slaves, husbands may have (had) power over their wives etc. Again, equality of power in these contexts can be promoted by first promoting other types of equality. If slaves and women are given basic resources then we reduce the cost of exiting the oppressive relationship as well as the power of the counter-party to keep them in that relationship. We may also want to given them equal rights.

However, I see that this post is dragging along and is now way past the saturation level, I guess. So I’ll stop here and just link to some previous posts dealing with the two remaining types of equality:

6. Equality of rights: here
7. Equality of luck or opportunity, i.e. equality of natural and social endowments: here

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (19): Talent, Effort or Luck?

Talented people usually earn more, especially when their talents are “marketable”, highly valuable and in demand among large groups of consumers or users. Hence, it’s tempting to conclude that income inequality is the natural and necessary result of the given inequality in the distribution of marketable talents. However, that conclusion only holds up when you turn things around: rather than talented people earning more, it has to be true that people who earn more generally have more and better talents, talents moreover which are in demand. I don’t know of any study confirming this claim, but my anecdotal observations in the matter tell me that the claim isn’t true: many rich people don’t have special talents, and many talented people aren’t rich at all.

But then why are some people rich? Perhaps they have some other native endowments, such as a strong will, discipline and a natural willingness to make an effort. Or perhaps they have successfully acquired these characteristics during the course of their upbringing and education. Income inequality is then the product of the natural and/or acquired inequality of effort. But, again, it’s easy to find wealthy people who are neither talented nor strong willed, and many poor people work very hard. As someone has said: hard work is much more common than success.

Maybe luck plays a large part in the creation of wealth: some people have the good fortune of acquiring – perhaps through inheritance – certain means of production. Others are born in a place and family that provides good education, numerous wealth creating opportunities, encouragement etc. Still others find themselves in an economy where demand for their particular contributions is high, or where these contributions are highly valued. Or maybe they find themselves in a political system where discrimination and certain government policies give them an advantage.

Your personal thoughts on the relative importance of talent, effort or luck will determine what you think should be done about income inequality. Those who believe effort is the main cause tend to assume nothing should be done. If wealth distribution is the sole result of differences in effort, then redistribution is not only unfair to those who invest more effort, but also has perverse consequences: it will destroy all future wealth and therefore make all future redistribution impossible, because punishing people for their efforts means taking away their incentives to invest effort.

If you think talent or a native endowment of discipline is the main cause of wealth inequality, then you will probably be more sympathetic to redistribution. Since no one deserves his or her talents or other native endowments, no one deserves the unequal rewards that come with unequal endowments. However, since people still need to use and develop their endowments, you’re likely to reserve at least a small role for effort. Hence, you’re not likely to be a strict egalitarian. Still, you will favor education as a means to foster some people’s lingering talents and underdeveloped sense of discipline, and perhaps you’ll also favor a more equal distribution of the attention society gives to different talents.

If you think income inequality is mainly caused by luck or the lack of it, you will be a strong egalitarian. You view talent and effort, as well as the ability and willingness to use and develop talents and to invest effort, as the products of good fortune: you’re lucky to have the right genes, parents and teachers who encourage you etc. And you also view other types of good fortune as causes of wealth: being in the right place at the right time, inheriting means of production, meeting the right business partners etc. Luck is undeserved, and so are its products. Hence redistribution is morally required.

The Causes of Poverty (43): The Welfare State

Yes, that’s right: the welfare state… According to many conservatives, the welfare state is self-defeating and actually makes people poorer. Welfare and social security (and perhaps even private charity) unwittingly work to thwart their own goal – helping the poor – in two different ways. There’s supposed to be a supply side and a demand side to the so-called “perverse effects” of anti-poverty policies.

Take the supply side first. The delivery of welfare by the government and – indirectly – by the taxpayers is economically inefficient. It burdens the primary suppliers of the necessary funds, namely the individual and corporate taxpayers. Because of this burden, companies and individuals lose the incentive to be productive. If they have to pay large amounts in taxes in order to fund the welfare state, they can’t or won’t create the wealth that is the basis for redistribution. In other words, they can’t or won’t create a rising tide that will lift all boats. Ultimately, a tax-based welfare state will eat itself because it burdens the wealth creators whose wealth it wants to redistribute.

I’ve argued against this rejection of the welfare state before, and I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that the risks to incentives are overstated, as well as the benefits of trickle down economics. (For instance, companies may decide to be more productive in order to compensate for the losses from taxation).

Let’s now turn to the demand side of the anti-welfare argument. Again, the reasoning is based on incentives that ultimately result in a self-defeating anti-poverty system, but this time it’s about the incentives of the recipients of welfare. The argument goes roughly like this. Take unemployment benefits for instance (one part of the welfare state). These benefits supposedly discourage people from working. And when people don’t work, they fail to gain experience and to nurture certain values – such as discipline – necessary in order to escape poverty. Hence, unemployment insurance makes the recipients worse off.

Or take another kind of benefit: financial support for children born out-of-wedlock. This kind of support also triggers the wrong incentives. It encourages teenagers to get pregnant and it discourages adults to marry. Teen-pregnancies and single parenthood both make it more difficult to escape poverty. Something similar happens with scholarships or affirmative action for poor students. These so-called anti-poverty policies actually incentivize students to enroll in education programs that are above their capabilities, forcing them to drop out of school at some point, and hence forcing them into poverty. And, finally, there’s the argument about welfare dependence: when people get money from the government they tend to settle in their role as receivers and fail to take their lives into their own hands. Again the wrong incentives.

This demand side of the anti-welfare argument suffers from two fatal shortcomings. First, the data don’t (always) support it. For example, it’s not true that generous unemployment insurance leads to higher unemployment. And secondly, it’s classist in the sense that it offers an essentialist depreciation of the poor as a class. The poor, according to the argument, suffer from a series of typical deficiencies:

  • shortsightedness (in the case of the person being tempted by child benefits and ignoring the long-term costs of teen pregnancy or single parenthood)
  • a lack of self-judgment (in the case of the student accepting a scholarship and enrolling in a program beyond her capabilities) and
  • a lack of self-control (in the case of the person settling in dependency).

This classism is not only generally incorrect and unfair, but it also obscures the many other causes of poverty. The poor aren’t always to blame for their own poverty, and the welfare state doesn’t force them to make themselves poor. Moreover, and even worse, this classism can be self-fulfilling.

Also, hasn’t the recent financial crisis shown that wealthy people, especially bankers, are equally short-sighted, self-deluded and lacking in self-control? And even if it’s true that those vices are more prominent among the poor (as is claimed here for example), wouldn’t that be a good argument for welfare rather than against it? If the poor can’t rationally take care of their own fate because they are self-deluded and unable to plan for the long term, shouldn’t the rest of us try to help them?

Income Inequality (23): The Fable of Egalistan and Opportunistan, or the Relationship Between Income Inequality and Inequality of Opportunity

Let’s imagine two fictional societies. One – call it Egalistan – has almost total income equality, as well as consumption equality (the latter following from the former). However, people are stuck in their social roles, and there’s very limited social mobility, vertical or horizontal. The quality of education is terrible. No one has any real ambitions, and talents are dormant. However, there’s not a lot of discrimination (otherwise equality would not have been possible) and people with few or negative natural endowments are assisted so that they can come close to the average level of income. This average level, however, is rather low because people are lethargic and the high degree of equality has destroyed economic incentives.

The other society – call it Opportunistan – is very unequal: it has a very high score on the Gini coefficient for income inequality. And yet it provides a lot of social mobility and desert-based rewards, as well as good, inclusive and cheap education, and even a tax regime that doesn’t reward hereditary benefits (e.g. a high “death tax”). It also rewards a wide variety of different talents and allows people to develop their non-mainstream talents and to act on their ambitions. People with relatively little natural endowments as well as people with a handicap are assisted and jobs are reserved for them. There’s little discrimination on any basis, and people are insured against misfortune. This society therefore provides a high level of equality of opportunity. However, this equality of opportunity results in high levels of income inequality, perhaps because some people choose not to earn a lot (so-called threshold earners) or because natural endowments (like IQ or talents) are distributed in a very unequal way.

While Opportunistan is obviously more appealing than Egalistan, I don’t agree that it shouldn’t be improved. Some would argue that Opportunistan has done all it is morally obliged to do and doesn’t need to reduce the level of income inequality. I don’t think so. First, it’s not obvious that Opportunistan can maintain its equality of opportunity. Those with greater wealth and income can provide to their children resources and thus opportunities that the less wealthy cannot. The good luck of being born in a wealthy family – which is probably also a well-functioning family with a good set of values – is hard to equalize with the existing set of policies in Opportunistan. Hence, even Opportunistan will find it difficult to achieve or maintain real equality of opportunity.

So, what can Opportunistan do? Obviously, it doesn’t want to adopt the cruel and unacceptable policy of platonic child redistribution. It would lose its a priori appeal if it did. What it can do is reduce some of its income inequality. A certain level of income redistribution could remove some of the unequal benefits resulting from some people’s good fortune of being born in a wealthy family. This redistribution can, to some extent, equalize this good fortune. If there are less poor families, there are less children growing up with the wrong values or with other sets of hereditary burdens (which doesn’t mean that poor people are poor because they have the wrong values; it means that being poor tends to produce the wrong values, e.g. lack of ambition etc.).

Secondly, Opportunistan hasn’t done enough because high levels of income inequality tend to undermine the functioning of democratic institutions. Those institutions are premised on the equal influence of all voters. Obviously that’s a utopian assumption, but there’s no reason to make it more utopian than it should be. Unequal financial resources produce unequal political influence. And the same argument can be made for the judicial domain.

So, it’s I think important that we don’t delude ourselves on the merits of Opportunistan: equality of opportunity is notoriously ambitious and difficult to achieve and maintain (even though equality of outcome is generally but erroneously considered the more utopian type of equality), and yet it’s not even enough. Reducing the levels of inequality of income is also important, but not all the way towards Egalistan.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (13): Deliberate Policy?

Some say that the increase in income inequality in countries such as the U.S. has been the result of deliberate government policy. That’s quite an accusation. It’s not controversial to assume that tax policy under right wing governments tends to be less burdensome on the rich, and that social welfare policy under such governments tends to be more stingy. If you look at it like this, it’s not crazy to argue that right wing policies can aggravate income inequality. But it’s quite another thing to claim that right wing governments use these policies in order to deliberately aggravate income inequality. That accusation is incompatible with right wing ideology, which claims that the preferred policies also and ultimately help the poor (trickle down economics etc.), and that left wing policies supposedly favoring the poor are in fact self-destructive (unemployment benefits create labor disincentives, taxes create production disincentives, etc.). However, it’s possible that this ideology is just a smokescreen for anti-poor policies. But I guess that’s somewhat difficult to prove.

If we look at the tax rates, it’s true that the rates for the wealthy tend to go down under Republican presidents:

In 1979, the effective tax rate on the top 0.01 percent (i.e., rich people) was 42.9 percent. … By Reagan’s last year in office it was 32.2 percent. (source)

However, things aren’t as simple as that:

From 1989 to 2005, … as income inequality continued to climb, the effective tax rate on the top 0.01 percent largely held steady; in most years it remained in the low 30s, surging to 41 during Clinton’s first term but falling back during his second, where it remained. The change in the effective tax rate on the bottom 20 percent (i.e., poor and lower-middle-class people) was much more dramatic, but not in a direction that would increase income inequality. Under Clinton, it dropped from 8 percent (about where it had stood since 1979) to 6.4 percent. Under George W. Bush, it fell to 4.3 percent. (source)

The tax rate for the rich dropped somewhat around 2005 following the Bush tax cuts, but all the tax effects over the last decades taken together don’t really make a good case that tax policy is the major cause of rising income inequality. So it’s even more difficult to make the case that tax policy was part of a conscious strategy to aggravate inequality. The increase in inequality has been too big compared to the possible impact of taxation. That’s corroborated by the fact that pre-tax inequality in the U.S. rose faster than after-tax inequality.

What’s interesting, however, is that pre-tax inequality in the U.S. tends to rise much faster under Republican rule. So inequality can still be the result of policy, but policy expressed in other ways than taxation. Other policies that may have contributed – deliberately or not – to rising income inequality are anti-labor union policies, decreases in the minimum wage, etc.

More posts in this series are here.

Income Inequality (21): And Economic (In)Efficiency

Standard economic theory suggests that these problems created by income inequality are a necessary price to pay for economic efficiency: unequal rewards – however unpleasant they are and whatever consequences they have – incite those with talents, skill and perseverance to innovate and be productive. Ultimately, this serves the welfare of the whole of society. Reducing inequality means taking away incentives for doing well, and results in economic inefficiency.

Sam Bowles has argued that the opposite is true:

Inequality breeds conflict, and conflict breeds wasted resources … in a very unequal society, the people at the top have to spend a lot of time and energy keeping the lower classes obedient and productive.

Inequality leads to an excess of what Bowles calls “guard labor”. In a 2007 paper on the subject, he and co-author Arjun Jayadev, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, make an astonishing claim: Roughly 1 in 4 Americans is employed to keep fellow citizens in line and protect private wealth from would-be Robin Hoods.

The job descriptions of guard labor range from “imposing work discipline”—think of the corporate IT spies who keep desk jockeys from slacking off online—to enforcing laws, like the officers in the Santa Fe Police Department paddy wagon parked outside of Walmart.

The greater the inequalities in a society, the more guard labor it requires, Bowles finds. This holds true among US states, with relatively unequal states like New Mexico employing a greater share of guard labor than relatively egalitarian states like Wisconsin.

The problem, Bowles argues, is that too much guard labor sustains “illegitimate inequalities,” creating a drag on the economy. All of the people in guard labor jobs could be doing something more productive with their time—perhaps starting their own businesses or helping to reduce the US trade deficit with China. (source)

I must say I’m not entirely convinced. Income inequality creates a lot of problems, but economic inefficiency isn’t the most important one. Justifications for the fight against inequality based on efficiency look a lot less promising than justifications based on justice and fairness.

Economic Human Rights (32): The Economic Cost of Taxing the Rich

Taxation is linked to human rights in several ways:

I personally belief that a progressive tax is best in light of the last two concerns. In a progressive taxation system, higher earners pay a larger percentage of their income on taxes. Compared to a regressive taxation system (people with higher incomes pay less in percentage of their income, as in the case of a consumption tax or VAT) or a flat tax (the tax percentage is the same for all income groups), a progressive tax reduces income inequality: it makes incomes more equal in a direct way because it reduces the income of higher-earning families by a larger percentage than the income of lower earning ones; but also in an indirect way because this system – under certain conditions – yields more tax revenues which can then be spent on poverty reduction and the safety net. Also, it seems to be a good example of a just and fair system. The strongest shoulders should carry the most heavy burden. Someone earning a low income can end up in poverty after paying a small percentage in taxes; a wealthy person will perhaps not even notice paying a relatively large sum in taxes.

The counter-narrative states that high tax rates discourage people; they are a disincentive to hard work and effort. High tax rates for high incomes discourage people who work relatively hard (they work hard supposedly because they earn a lot). Because high tax rates punish the most productive elements in a society, the whole of society suffers. More productive people will limit their productivity because they don’t want to fall into a higher tax bracket, and the money they pay in taxes can’t be invested in the economy. Taxing the rich therefore has an unacceptable economic cost. Conversely, low tax rates for the rich produce benefits for all (this is trickle down economics, read also about the Laffer curve).

But this narrative doesn’t quite stand the test of data. As is clear from this link, high tax rates don’t slow down economic growth, and low tax rates don’t speed it up. This paper also supports the claim that moderate, as opposed to dramatic, increases in marginal rates don’t have any impact on the willingness of the wealthy to participate in the economy. They won’t go Galt. Atlas won’t shrug, except to signal indifference.

The top income tax rate was 91% (beginning at taxable income of $400,000) … [in] the period from 1951 through 1963. Those were the golden years of the U.S. economy, in which the average annual rate of productivity growth was 3.1% (compared with about 1.5% after 1981). Of course, the growth might have been even faster had the marginal tax rates been lower, but the coincidence of high rates and high productivity raises challenging questions for those who believe that high marginal tax rates carry an unacceptable cost. (source)

To be fair, marginal tax rates are a crude measures of tax burden. There’s a difference between marginal tax rates and effective tax rates.

  • A marginal tax rate is the tax rate that applies to the last dollar of the tax base (taxable income or spending, usually income). It’s not the rate at which all your dollars are taxed. It’s the maximum rate you’re paying on any of your dollars of taxable income.
  • An effective tax rate refers to the actual rate, i.e., the rate existing in fact, for the entire income, after tax deductions and credits and taking into account lower rates for lower income brackets (see here). It’s your total tax obligation (including your income tax and any other additional taxes and/or credits), divided by your total taxable income.

But even if we look at the effective tax rates of the rich, we see that this has steadily decreased over the decades, with little or no positive effect on overall economic performance.

And when there’s no positive effect of decreasing tax rates, there’s probably also no negative effect of increasing tax rates. To the extent that the wealthy (and productive, although those groups obviously don’t overlap completely) respond to changes in the tax system, their responses focus not on increased/decreased labor, productivity or investment, but on tax avoidance (see here).