The Causes of Wealth Inequality (23): Capital Gains

It’s hard to investigate the causes of income inequality without looking at the sources of income. In turns out that, in the U.S. at least but probably also in other developed countries, the majority of a population gets almost all of its income from wages, while people at the top of the income distribution get most of it from capital gains and dividends.

Dividends are payments made by a corporation to its shareholder members, usually a portion of corporate profits. Capital gains are profits that result from investments into a capital asset, such as stocks, bonds or real estate, which exceeds the purchase price. A capital gain is the difference between a higher selling price and a lower purchase price, resulting in a financial gain for the investor.

Given these differences in the sources of income, income inequality will rise if incomes from capital gains and dividends rise more rapidly than wage incomes, perhaps because taxes on the former are cut. And indeed, most of the recent increase in the Gini score for the US (higher Gini numbers imply a less equal distribution) comes from higher capital gains and dividends and from lower taxes for high earners (lower taxes not only on capital gains, by the way; many taxes have become less progressive in the U.S.).

This cause of income inequality suggest a problem that goes deeper than inequality:

I think a lot of people sense that there’s something unsettling about this shift from labor income to capital incomes. It seems endemic of a society that devalues work while providing outsized rewards for speculation and asset accumulation. (source)

More posts in this series are here.

Economic Human Rights (35b): What’s So Funny About Charity?

I’ve stated before why I believe charity helps to prevent poverty, and why it’s better than government welfare, at least in principle. The welfare state, in my view, is a fallback option when charity fails (as it often does).

The usual argument against this view is that charity is bound to fail because it’s crowded out by the welfare state. People don’t and won’t assist others because they think that they already do enough by paying taxes, whatever the effectiveness or fairness of the tax system. The evidence for the occurrence of crowding out is, however, unclear, and that’s a “charitable” interpretation of the evidence.

Another criticism of charity is closer to the mark:

Charity is counter-cyclical. When the economy is booming and there’s less need, there’s also more capacity. When the [economy] is worse and there’s more need, donations dry up and there’s less capacity. That’s not a criticism of charities: It’s hardly their fault. And nor is it a criticism of the people who donate — or stop donating — to charities. When you’re worried about paying your mortgage, it’s harder to help other people pay theirs. But it’s a big part of why we need a robust, federal safety net that’s immune … from the ravages of the business cycle. (source)

Indeed, as the need for charity rises, the supply diminishes, and vice versa. That is why a theory of poverty alleviation that depends solely on charity is incomplete. However, implicit in this argument is that the welfare state is immune to the business cycle, which is obviously incorrect. A recession means a drop in tax revenues and a simultaneous increase in demand for welfare transfers (there are more unemployed etc.). Hence, a recession means a weakening of the capacity of the welfare system. That’s exactly the same mechanism that makes charity unreliable.

Fortunately, the welfare state can bridge over recessions by going into debt, something that few private charity donors will do. This means that a welfare state can keep its anti-poverty transfers going in times of increased demand for funds and decreased supply of funds.

More on charity here.

Is Taxation Akin to Theft and Slavery?

The notion that taxation is theft and a violation of property rights is quite common, especially in libertarian circles. (A less extreme version of the argument claims that taxation may be a justified limitation of property rights but its level should be kept as low as possible because of concerns for economic incentives).

The classic justification of this rejection of taxation is a reduction ad absurdum: if a state can tax its citizens, how much can we reduce the group of people and still hold that this group can impose taxes on its members?

There are many variations of [this argument], but one begins, for instance, with the example of a man stealing a car, which most people would regard as unethical. It then proceeds to make slight changes to the story, with the identity of the thief gradually shifting from one man, to a gang of five men, to a gang of ten men who take a vote (allowing the victim to vote as well) on whether to steal the car before stealing it; … to one hundred men who take the car and give the victim back a bicycle; to two hundred men who not only give the victim back a bicycle but buy a poor person a bicycle as well. It ultimately challenges the reader to say how big a group needs to be, and what characteristics it needs to have, before the immorality of theft becomes the alleged morality of taxation. (source)

Taxation is not only rejected because it’s viewed as a form of official and legalized theft. It’s also viewed as a form of slavery. Robert Nozick, a famous libertarian, has argued that taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor.

Nozick starts from the reasonable assumption that people own themselves. Self-ownership also means that people own their talents and labor power. He then continues with the Lockean argument for private property: we produce goods by mixing our labor power and talents with elements of the material world, and by this mixing we generate ownership of those modified elements of the world. If the government taxes our income, it takes away – or steals – parts of what we own through our labor. But the government doesn’t just steal things from us. Because our labor and talents have been incorporated in the things we own – and we own them because of this incorporation – taking them from us means effectively that the government owns our talents and labor, and hence owns us. Taxation means that the government takes away our self-ownership. And that’s slavery. It also means that the government uses people as means rather than ends, violating Kant’s maxim.

If you’re convinced by this kind of reasoning and agree that taxation is slavery, forced labor and theft, then you’re morally allowed or even obliged to resist taxation and rebel against government. And you’re likely to be a libertarian.

However, you may also want to consider a few counter-arguments.

1. There’s first the issue of value pluralism. Private property and self-ownership are undoubtedly important, but not so important that they trump all other values. Hence, they can be limited to accommodate a balancing with other concerns.

2. The rejection of taxation becomes morally difficult when we consider the purpose of taxation, or better the – substantial – part of taxation which serves the welfare state and the realization of economic rights. Economic rights are primarily a duty of charity, as I’ve argued here. The state, with its welfare mechanisms, should only intervene when citizens don’t (sufficiently) help each other. And it needs taxes to do that. Taxes are the enforcement of the duty to charity. Which is why tax fraud, tax evasion and certainly the principled refusal to pay taxes are particularly reprehensible: the existence of taxes is already a stain on the reputation of mankind, because taxes exist as a consequence of the fact that people deny their responsibilities. Denying the duty to pay taxes is a double moral failure.

However, some libertarians go along with the first part of this argument and accept that people have a moral duty to help others (others who are starving for example). However, they deny that this creates a right. So, ideally, these libertarians would not commit the first prong of this double moral failure, in which case the second prong could not occur. And yet, in the non-ideal world, libertarians – and others – do commit the first moral failure, i.e. do not live up to their responsibilities to help others. Subsequently, libertarians and others who follow Nozick, are doomed to commit the second moral failure as well. What’s more, they can’t even call it a moral failure because according to them starving people don’t have a right to demand our help (the fact that we have a duty to help doesn’t necessarily give them a right to our help). Such a right would be incompatible with self-ownership. It would mean stealing our goods and our labor power and talents. It would mean using us as a means for their survival. In my view, the claim that the duty of generosity doesn’t create a right to generosity is a simple artifact invented to guarantee the supremacy of property rights.

3. Nozicks reasoning about self-ownership and property is shaky, as he himself admitted:

why isn’t mixing what I own with what I don’t own a way of losing what I own rather than a way of gaining what I don’t? If I own a can of tomato juice and spill it in the sea so its molecules… mingle evenly throughout the sea, do I thereby come to own the sea, or have I foolishly dissipated my tomato juice? (source)

4. Given the importance of talents in the libertarian argument, and the refusal to have people’s talents “harvested” for the sake of the minimal welfare of those without talents or otherwise unable to fend for themselves: is it not evident that there’s an injustice involved in the distribution of talents? Nobody decides freely to be born without talents, so the absence of talents is nobody’s fault. Should you be forced to suffer for something that is not your fault? In addition, is there not a small possibility that people are rewarded for the wrong talents and that some talents are not sufficiently rewarded? If all that’s the case, then the claim that the state can’t use the proceeds of your talents for the benefit of others becomes a lot weaker: if those proceeds could just as well have gone to other talents or the talents of others (in part at least), and if your talents are just a matter of luck, why should you have a right to keep those proceeds?

5. And finally, is it not somewhat gross to compare the fate of a taxpayer to the fate of a slave? A taxpayer retains many of the freedoms a slave can only dream of.

The Ethics of Human Rights (29): Should Taxation Be a Tool For Economic Efficiency or For Social Justice?

Taxation is a recurring theme in political discussions between people of the left and right. People of the left see taxation as a tool for social justice. They tend to prefer rather high taxation rates and a progressive taxation system:

  • High taxation rates bring in revenues that are large enough to enable the government to spend on programs and transfers that are designed to promote social justice: unemployment benefits, poverty reduction policies, education, healthcare etc.
  • Progressive taxation rates are just because they impose relatively (and not just absolutely) higher taxes on people who are more able to pay, and, in addition, reduce income inequality and hence realize another goal of social justice.

People on the right usually favor low tax rates and a non-progressive taxation system (either a proportional system in which everyone pays the same share of their income, or a regressive system in which everyone pays more or less the same amount in taxes). Rather than on social justice, they focus on the economic effects of taxation.

  • They reject high taxation rates because they claim that these high rates discourage people and are a disincentive to hard work, effort and investment. Because high rates limit effort and investment, they also limit productivity, innovation, international competitiveness and job creation.
  • They also reject progressive tax rates because high tax rates for high incomes discourage those people who work relatively hard (they work hard supposedly because they earn a lot) and who are most likely to innovate, to be productive and competitive and to create jobs.
  • However, they don’t necessarily favor regressive taxes because they are equally hostile to high tax rates for low income people, albeit for other reasons. High taxes for low income people discourage them from entering the labor market and hence inflate unemployment. Still, they claim that the worst damage is done by high taxes on the higher incomes, which is the reason they reserve particular scorn for progressive taxation systems. Because high tax rates for the wealthy 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. High tax rates, especially for the rich, have an unacceptable cost in terms of economic efficiency. Keeping taxes low, on the contrary, and allowing wealthy people to use their money in the economy, will ultimately benefit everyone (this is the so-called Trickle-Down theory).

Of course, this distinction between left and right is a caricature. Most people on the left are also concerned about economic efficiency, and most on the right are not insensitive to questions of social justice. The extremes are hardly ever encountered in real life: no one wants to limit taxes to such an extent that economic efficiency is promoted but no money is left for justice, and no one wants to put tax rates at such a high level that there is ultimately no more economy to tax. (The latter concern is expressed in the famous Laffer Curve arguing that beyond a certain level of tax rates government revenues in fact decrease instead of increase. At very high rates there is no longer any incentive for a rational taxpayer to earn any income and hence tax revenues will decline while tax rates increase. However, it isn’t clear what “very” in the previous sentence actually means and where exactly the tipping point is situated).

Personally, I believe that the concerns of both right and left are justified and need to be balanced, and that too much focus on either the element of efficiency or justice is detrimental to the other element. On the one hand, there’s only so much money a government can raise without wrecking the economy, and justice isn’t only about spending money (there can even be perverse effects such as unemployment traps, welfare dependency etc.). On the other hand, there’s only so much an efficient economy can do to realize social justice all by itself and quasi-automatically (remember the invisible hand…). To quote Matthew Yglesias’ sarcastic comment on the skyrocketing incomes of the U.S. top 400 earners in the decades leading up to the 2009 recession:

As is well-known, the Top 400 are considerably more talented than the rest of us. And [the] decline in their tax rates has created exciting new incentives for them to apply their talents. And that, in turn, is why the 2000s were a so much more economically successful decade than the 1990s, not just for the Top 400 but for the rest of us as well. Thanks to their skyrocketing incomes and falling tax rates, we’re currently [during the 2008-2009 recession, FS] all enjoying the fruits of prosperity, rapid growth, and low unemployment. Thanks rich guys! (source)

A similar sentiment is expressed in this clip from the Daily Show (skip to the 4th minute or so).

I believe taxes in the U.S. are relatively low and can be raised without too much harm to economic efficiency. The resulting government revenues could then be spent on improving the social safety net and promoting social justice. It’s difficult to imagine for a European that a country such as the U.S. doesn’t offer health insurance to millions of its citizens. Also, unemployment benefits are quite stingy in the U.S., both in terms of eligibility and duration: only one third of the unemployed qualify for benefits and only for 26 weeks (extendable during recessions if the Republicans don’t object, as they infamously did beginning of 2010).

The system of unemployment benefits could easily be improved without perverse effects or harm to economic efficiency. And there are other areas of possible improvement as well.

However, as a European in Europe, I think there’s a strong argument that the social safety net in Europe (at least in some countries) has harmed European competitiveness, labor market participation and innovation.

Still, is there evidence of this? What do the data say about high tax rates harming economic efficiency, in Europe and in general? Is the conservative case against taxes as strong as it seems? I’m afraid not. There’s some evidence that the effect of reasonably rather than extremely high rates on economic efficiency is minimal at best. Here’s more evidence from Lane Kenworthy about the U.S. and other affluent countries (always keeping in mind that correlation doesn’t imply causation and that the absence of a large negative effect of high taxes doesn’t preclude the possibility that lower taxes would have had a large positive effect). One measure of economic efficiency is economic growth. If we plot economic growth rates for the U.S. against tax rates for the wealthy we see that higher tax rates lead to more growth. But of course there can be catch-up effect: higher rates producing their effects only years later. That’s taken into account in these graphs, which also show that an international comparison doesn’t prove that countries with higher tax rates have lower growth.

If we have a look at the data about the effect of high tax rates on unemployment (another conservative concern), we also see that we shouldn’t panic about taxes.

Now, if there is no good reason not to tax at a moderately high level, based on concerns about economic efficiency, the question remains whether there is a good reason to tax based on social justice reasons. Given the caveat that social justice isn’t all about government spending (I argued <a href="http://here that it is primarily about something else) and that such spending can in some cases have perverse effects (see above), I do believe that some spending is necessary in some cases, and that relatively high tax rates are necessary to produce the revenues required for this spending.

Again following Kenworthy, I believe that relatively high tax rates are acceptable and even necessary to create the revenues required for social justice policies, but that progressive tax rates in themselves don’t do the job of reducing income inequality, contrary to what is often claimed as a justification for progressive rates. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t reduce income inequality (it’s quite high in the U.S.) – there are good reasons to try. It just means that progressive taxation in itself won’t do the job. The important thing is to have high tax revenues which can then be spent in transfers and services that reduce income inequality and achieve other goals of social justice. Yet, I still think a progressive system is required, not because of its supposed effects but simply because it is just in itself, compared to proportional or regressive systems. A person with more income can afford to pay, not merely more in an absolute sense but more in the sense of a larger share of his or her income.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (30): Failing to Correct for Inflation

Inflation is often a significant part of growth in any time series measured in dollars (or other currencies), or – in other words – it’s an important part of an increase over time in data expressed in dollars. So when you compare data for the current year, month or whatever with the same data for some period in the past, you may just see inflation rather than actual growth or increases. By adjusting for inflation, you uncover the real growth. You may even discover that growth hides decline. Here’s an innocuous example of the consequences of failing to adjust data for inflation:

Over the last month, newspapers and film Web sites have proclaimed Avatar the highest-grossing film in American history. … Moviegoers in [the U.S.] have now spent about $700 million on tickets to Avatar. … No. 2 on the all-time list is Titanic, which brought in about $600 million. Avatar surpassed Titanic in late January. The problem with these numbers is that they aren’t adjusted for inflation. … When you adjust movie grosses for inflation, as Box Office Mojo does, you see that “Gone With the Wind” remains the top-grossing movie of all time, with $1.5 billion in box-office sales (using today’s dollars). (source)

This won’t do much damage. The problems start when unadjusted data are being used to push a political point or legislation. For example, one can claim that it isn’t a good idea to raise gasoline taxes because gasoline prices are already very high compared to the old days, but this claim loses much of its strength when you adjust the prices for inflation and it turns out that they are actually rather average, historically.

Of course, you can make mistakes while trying to adjust for inflation, and there are several techniques available, none of which will provide the same numbers. But any adjustment, especially for comparisons over long periods of time, are better than no adjustment at all.

There’s a cool inflation adjusting tool here (only for U.S. data I’m afraid).

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).