Tag: class warfare

Elizabeth Warren, Fair Play, and Soaking the Rich

Elizabeth Warren’s recent remarks on class warfare, made during a campaign stop in her quest for a Massachusetts U.S. Senate seat, provide a nice microcosm of the broader philosophical views behind much contemporary political debate.

Here’s Warren:

The relevant bit that has her supporters so fired up goes like this:

I hear all this, oh this is class warfare, no! There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there–good for you.

But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory.

Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea–God Bless! Keep a Big Hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

Fully exploring the thinking behind Warren’s remarks would demand a book at least. We might point out that most of the rich got that way by creating value for others, meaning they gave back in the process of getting rich. Or we might wonder if her thinking implies that, because the state is responsible in part for the environment in which all of us earned what we have, the state is the actual owner of what we have.

To spare you having to read that book, however, I’m going to instead address just two points I find particularly interesting. First, we can tease out the theory of political obligation Warren advances and see if it holds up to scrutiny. Second, we can ask whether her argument, even if we accept it on its own terms, supports a tax increase on high income earners.

In a 1955 essay, H. L. A. Hart articulated what’s come to be known as the “fair play” principle of political obligation.

When a number of persons conduct any joint enterprise according to rules and thus restrict their liberty, those who have submitted to those restrictions when required have a right to a similar submission from those who have benefited by their submission.

Framed in Warren’s language, “the rest of us” restricted our liberty by paying taxes for the creation of roads, the formation of police forces, the funding of fire departments, and so on. And the rich benefited from our submission to taxes by getting rich (in part) because of the existence of roads, police, and fire departments. Therefore, we have a right to a similar submission from the rich in the form of them paying an increased amount in taxes to fund roads, police, and fire departments, too.

So by her account, this can’t be class warfare because it’s a simple matter of obligation. But is that true? Does the so-called “fair play” account of political obligation work?

Not really. Robert Nozick famously knocked it down in Anarchy, State, and Utopia with a thought experiment about a neighborhood public address system. And A. John Simmons went even further—and did so more persuasively—in his 1979 classic, Moral Principles and Political Obligations.

But the basic response to “fair play” is pretty simple: It seems awfully weird to demand that we repay benefits we never had a choice about accepting in the first place.

Nobody approached the rich before they were rich and said, “Hey, we’re all pitching in to pay for roads and police, which we all think are pretty valuable. If you’d like to benefit from those things like we would, we ask that you pay for them. Are you up for that?” A (pre-)rich person might very well say, “Yes, I’m game.” In that case the principle of fair play would apply. But it would only apply if he had a meaningful choice about the matter. On the other hand, he might say, “Yes, I think we do need roads and police, but I also think they’d be better provided by an alternative cooperative scheme (the market, a different government, a different voluntary group, etc.) to the one you’re offering.”

Simmons calls this the distinction between “receiving” benefits and “accepting” them. The fair play principle creates obligations when benefits are accepted, but not when merely received.

With that in mind, Warren would have a difficult time arguing that any of us genuinely accepted the particular roads and police provided by the particular scheme she supports. We’ve received them, yes, and may rather like what we received—but we were never presented with an actual choice.

There may, of course, be plenty of other good reasons to feel obligated to pay our taxes—or to even pay more taxes than our neighbors—but fair play, at least in the form Warren presents it, doesn’t quite get us there.

Still, let’s set such concerns aside and grant to Warren that, if the rich did benefit from the particular services paid for by the rest of us, they have a duty to pay (more) for them. Would that allow us to justify asking the rich to pay more taxes today?

Again, probably not. Just look at the beneficial services Warren draws our attention to.

  1. Roads
  2. Police
  3. Fire departments
  4. Education

She tacks an “and so on” to the list, but there’s something striking about the concrete examples she does give. Namely, they’re all the kinds of things you’d expect even from a much smaller state than the one we have today.

In other words, the need to raise taxes at the present moment (if such a need exists) is precisely not to pay for roads, police, fire departments, and education. We had those—and they were functioning quite nicely—for a good while before the explosion of federal spending under the last two administrations.

If Warren’s claim is that the rich got rich because of certain benefits they received from government and so should pay more to provide those benefits to others, then the overwhelming bulk of government spending is completely outside the scope of her argument.

It’s not obvious that many rich people got to be rich because of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, or military expenses. (Those who got rich because of subsidies are another matter, but she doesn’t draw that distinction, nor is she calling for an end to government handouts to the wealthy and politically connected.) But those are where we’ve seen so much of the spending increases that now demand, according to Warren and her peers, that all of us pony up more cash to the federal government.

This means that an easy response to Warren is to grant her general philosophical point but then add that what it leads to is not increased taxes but cutting government back to those programs that do make people rich and only then worry about how much of what remains the rich should pay for.

Of course we might also point out that, even with the bloated leviathan we have in Washington—one that does far more than provide roads, police, fire departments, and schools (which are, after all, chiefly state and local matters)—the rich still pay for most of it. Certainly more than “the rest of us” pay. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out back in May, “the highest-earning 10% of the U.S. population paid the largest share among 24 countries examined, even after adjusting for their relatively higher incomes.” The top 20% of American income earners pay over half the federal taxes. Which means that “the next kid who comes along” already is getting his federal benefits from the rich. To Warren and her supporters, I ask, “How much is enough?”

If Warren’s moral case for increasing the tax burden of the rich doesn’t hold up, can she still maintain her claim that this isn’t class warfare? Probably not. By her arguments, the rich are not obligated to pay more than they already are. Nor will their paying more do much of anything to ameliorate America’s fiscal woes. That means it’s rather difficult to see her speech as anything but a ploy to fire up her base by attacking a disfavored minority.

If that’s not class warfare, I don’t know what is.

Update: I just finished a podcast on the subject of this post with Caleb Brown.

One Simple Reason (and Two Easy Steps) to Show Why Obama’s Soak-the-Rich Tax Hikes Won’t Work

It’s hard to keep track of all the tax hikes that President Obama is proposing, but it’s very simple to recognize his main target – the evil, nasty, awful people known as the rich.

Or, as Obama identifies them, the “millionaires and billionaires” who happen to have yearly incomes of more than $200,000.

Whether the President is talking about higher income tax rates, higher payroll tax rates, an expanded alternative minimum tax, a renewed death tax, a higher capital gains tax, more double taxation of dividends, or some other way of extracting money, the goal is to have these people foot the bill for a never-ending expansion of the welfare state.

This sounds like a pretty good scam, at least if you’re a vote-buying politician, but there is one little detail that sometimes gets forgotten. Raising the tax burden is not the same as raising revenue.

That may not matter if you’re trying to win an election by stoking resentment with the politics of hate and envy. But it is a problem if you actually want to collect more money to finance a growing welfare state.

Unfortunately (at least from the perspective of the class-warfare crowd), the rich are not some sort of helpless pinata that can be pilfered at will.

The most important thing to understand is that the rich are different from the rest of us (or at least they’re unlike me, but feel free to send me a check if you’re in that category).

Ordinary slobs like me get the overwhelming share of our income from wages and salaries. The means we are somewhat easy victims when the politicians feel like raping and plundering. If my tax rate goes up, I don’t really have much opportunity to protect myself by altering my income.

Sure, I can choose not to give a speech in the middle of nowhere for $500 because the after-tax benefit shrinks. Or I can decide not to write an article for some magazine because the $300 payment shrinks to less than $200 after tax. But my “supply-side” responses don’t have much of an effect.

For rich people, however, the world is vastly different. As the chart shows, people with more than $1 million of adjusted gross income get only 33 percent of their income from wages and salaries. And the same IRS data shows that the super-rich, those with income above $10 million, rely on wages and salaries for only 19 percent of their income.

This means that they – unlike me and (presumably) you – have tremendous ability to control the timing, level, and composition of their income.

Indeed, here are two completely legal and very easy things that rich people already do to minimize their taxes - but will do much more frequently if they are targeted for more punitive tax treatment.

  1. They will shift their investments to stocks that are perceived to appreciate in value. This means they can reduce their exposure to the double tax on dividends and postpone indefinitely taxes on capital gains.  They get wealthier and the IRS collects less revenue.
  2. They will shift their investments to municipal bonds, which are exempt from federal tax. They probably won’t risk their money on debt from basket-case states such as California and Illinois (the Greece and Portugal of America), but there are many well-run states that issue bonds. The rich will get steady income and, while the return won’t be very high, they don’t have to give one penny of their interest payments to the IRS.

For every simple idea I can envision, it goes without saying that clever lawyers, lobbyists, accountants, and financial planners can probably think of 100 ways to utilize deductions, credits, preferences, exemptions, shelters, exclusions, and loopholes. This is why class-warfare tax policy is so self-defeating.

And all of this analysis doesn’t even touch upon the other sure-fire way to escape high taxes - and that’s to simply decide to be less productive. Most high-income people are hard-charging types who are investing money, building businesses, and otherwise engaging in behavior that is very good for them - but also very good for the economy.

But you don’t have to be an Ayn Rand devotee to realize that many people, to varying degrees, choose to “go Galt” when they feel that the government has excessively undermined the critical link between effort and reward.

Indeed, if Obama really wants to “soak the rich,” he might want to abandon his current approach and endorse a simple and fair flat tax. As explained in this video, this pro-growth reform does lead to substantial “Laffer Curve” effects.

But you don’t have to believe the video. You can check out this data, straight from the IRS website, showing how those evil rich people paid much more to the IRS after Reagan cut their tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent in the 1980s.

CPAs Celebrate as Obama Proposes to Create a Turbo-Charged Alternative Minimum Tax

Wow, this is remarkable. The alternative minimum tax (AMT) is one of the most-hated features of the tax code. It is such a nightmare of complexity that even Democrats routinely have supported “patches” and “band-aids” to protect millions of additional households from getting trapped in this surreal parallel tax universe - one that requires taxpayers to calculate their taxes two different ways, with the IRS getting the maximum amount of money from the two returns. (Hong Kong, by contrast, give taxpayers the option of calculating their taxes two different ways, but they’re allowed to pay the smaller of the two amounts.)

Notwithstanding the AMT’s status as arguably the worst feature of the internal revenue code, President Obama apparently wants to double down on this horrific policy by creating a new version of this nightmarish provision.

Here are some excerpts from the Wall Street Journal’s coverage, including a key observation that Obama’s scheme is just another version of the AMT.

The administration’s principle resembles the Alternative Minimum Tax, which was first adopted in 1969 and was intended to hit the superwealthy. The AMT has been hitting an increasing number of the middle class because it wasn’t indexed for inflation, and Congress has continually wrestled with how to get rid of it.

The WSJ article also notes that a glaring inconsistency in the White House’s rhetoric. the plan is supposed to be a “very significant” tax hike, but doubling the tax burden on millionaires would only raise $19 billion per year. In other words, the Administration’s class-warfare rhetoric is probably just cover for a tax hike that actually will hit a lot of people with far more modest incomes.

The proposal also could apply to a broader selection of taxpayers—all households with incomes of more than $1 million. Those earners are expected to pay an average of $845,000 this year, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. Assuming the households in the group of 22,000 pay that amount, even doubling their tax burden would raise just $19 billion a year at a time when deficit reduction is being measured in trillions of dollars. That doesn’t take into effect any change in taxpayer behavior prompted by a new tax regime. A senior administration official said that depending on where the minimum rate is set, the plan could be a “very significant” revenue raiser. The official wouldn’t provide details. …Some conservative economists say such a proposal could put a drag on capital markets and ignores the fact that many companies have already paid tax on the income before it is distributed to owners as dividends or capital gains.

The New York Times, to its credit, provides a fair description of the issue (including a much-needed acknowledgement that Warren Buffett may not have been honest and/or accurate), and also suggests that Obama may be proposing to replace the existing AMT with this new version (though that presumably would negate its impact as a revenue-raiser).

Mr. Obama will not specify a rate or other details, and it is unclear how much revenue his plan would raise. But his idea of a millionaires’ minimum tax will be prominent in the broad plan for long-term deficit reduction that he will outline at the White House on Monday. Mr. Obama’s proposal is certain to draw opposition from Republicans, who have staunchly opposed raising taxes on the affluent because, they say, it would discourage investment. It could also invite scrutiny from some economists who have disputed Mr. Buffett’s assertion that the megarich pay a lower tax rate over all. Mr. Buffett’s critics say many of the rich actually make more from wages than from investments. …The administration wants such a tax to replace the alternative minimum tax, which was created decades ago to make sure the richest taxpayers with plentiful deductions and credits did not avoid income taxes, but which now hits millions of Americans who are considered upper middle class.

Actually, the AMT also hits lots of middle-class families since having kids is considered a “preference” for tax purposes.

But that’s just an insult layered on top of injury. What makes Obama’s new scheme so destructive is that it would (though the White House has not explained the details) somehow classify dividends and capital gains as “preference” items - even though everyone acknowledges that such income already is double taxed!

In other words, Obama claims to be concerned about jobs, but he is proposing a big tax hike on the saving and investment that is necessary to create jobs. Amazing.

Regular readers will recognize this video about Obama’s class-warfare tax policy. But if you haven’t seen it, five reasons are presented to explain why it will backfire.

But look at the bright side. At least accountants and tax lawyers (and don’t forget bankruptcy specialists) will get more business if Obama’s plan is implemented.

Obama’s Economic Policy: From Tragedy to Farce

Herman Cain probably had the best reaction to the President’s speech: “We waited 30 months for this?”

My reaction yesterday was mixed. In some sense, I was almost embarrassed for the President. He demanded a speech to a joint session of Congress and then produced a list of recycled (regurgitated might be a better word) Keynesian gimmicks.

But I was also angry. Tens of millions of Americans are suffering, but Obama is unwilling to admit big government isn’t working. I don’t know whether it’s because of ideological blindness or short-term politics, but it’s a tragedy that ordinary people are hurting because of his mistakes.

The Wall Street Journal this morning offered a similar response, but said it in a nicer way.

This is not to say that Mr. Obama hasn’t made any intellectual progress across his 32 months in office. He now admits the damage that overregulation can do, though he can’t do much to stop it without repealing his own legislative achievements. He now acts as if he believes that taxes matter to investment and hiring, at least for the next year. And he now sees the wisdom of fiscal discipline, albeit starting only in 2013. Yet the underlying theory and practice of the familiar ideas that the President proposed last night are those of the government conjurer. More targeted, temporary tax cuts; more spending now with promises of restraint later; the fifth (or is it sixth?) plan to reduce housing foreclosures; and more public works spending, though this time we’re told the projects really will be shovel-ready.

And let’s also note that Obama had the gall to demand that Congress immediately enact his plan - even though he hasn’t actually produced anything on paper!

And then, for the cherry on the ice cream sundae, he says he wants the so-called supercommittee to impose a bunch of class-warfare taxes to finance his latest scheme.

What began as tragedy has now become farce.

If you didn’t see it when I posted it a month or so ago, here’s the video I did last year when Obama was proposing a second faux stimulus. Now that he’s on his fourth of fifth jobs-bill/stimulus/growth-package/whatever, it’s worth another look.

Though I must confess that I made a mistake when I put together this video. I mistakenly assumed the economy would have at least managed to get back to a semi-decent level of growth. More confirmation that economists are lousy forecasters.

Warren Buffett’s Fiscal Innumeracy

Warren Buffett’s at it again. He has a column in the New York Times complaining that he has been coddled by the tax code and that “rich” people should pay higher taxes.

My first instinct is to send Buffett the website where people can voluntarily pay extra money to the federal government. I’ve made this suggestion to guilt-ridden rich people in the past.

But I no longer give that advice. I’m worried he might actually do it. And even though Buffett is wildly misguided about fiscal policy, I know he will invest his money much more wisely than Barack Obama will spend it.

But Buffett goes beyond guilt-ridden rants in favor of higher taxes. He makes specific assertions that are inaccurate.

Last year my federal tax bill — the income tax I paid, as well as payroll taxes paid by me and on my behalf — was $6,938,744. That sounds like a lot of money. But what I paid was only 17.4 percent of my taxable income — and that’s actually a lower percentage than was paid by any of the other 20 people in our office. Their tax burdens ranged from 33 percent to 41 percent and averaged 36 percent.

His numbers are flawed in two important ways.

  1. When Buffett receives dividends and capital gains, it is true that he pays “only” 15 percent of that money on his tax return. But dividends and capital gains are both forms of double taxation. So if he wants honest effective tax rate numbers, he needs to show the 35 percent corporate tax rate.

    Moreover, as I noted in a previous post, Buffett completely ignores the impact of the death tax, which will result in the federal government seizing 45 percent of his assets. To be sure, Buffett may be engaging in clever tax planning, so it is hard to know the impact on his effective tax rate, but it will be significant.

  2. Buffett also mischaracterizes the impact of the Social Security payroll tax, which is dedicated for a specific purpose. The law only imposes that tax on income up to about $107,000 per year because the tax is designed so that people “earn” a corresponding  retirement benefit (which actually is tilted in favor of low-income workers).

    Imposing the tax on multi-millionaire income, however, would mean sending rich people giant checks from Social Security when they retire. But nobody thinks that’s a good idea. Or you could apply the payroll tax to all income and not pay any additional benefits. But this would turn Social Security from an “earned benefit” to a redistribution program, which also is widely rejected (though the left has been warming to the idea in recent years because their hunger for more tax revenue is greater than their support for Social Security).

If we consider these two factors, Buffett’s effective tax rate almost surely is much higher than the burden on any of the people who work for him.

But this entire discussion is a good example of why we should junk the corrupt, punitive, and unfair tax code and replace it with a simple flat tax. With no double taxation and a single, low tax rate, we would know that rich people were paying the right amount, neither too much based on class-warfare tax rates nor too little based on loopholes, deduction, preferences, exemptions, shelters, and credits.

So why doesn’t Buffett endorse this approach? Tim Carney offers a very plausible answer.

For more information about why class-warfare taxes are misguided, this video may be helpful.

Disgraceful Soundbite from the London Riots

I don’t know which part of this truly dismaying interview is more upsetting: the joy in their voices as these girls describe the “fun” they are having at the riots and their hope that they continue the next day, the class-warfare-based justification they feel for the looting and burning of shops, or their almost comic ignorance of which party holds control of the government (“Conservatives. Yeah. Whatever who it is. I dunno…”).

Listen and Weep, courtesy of the Beeb.

In Class War, It’s the “Middle” Ground that’s Key

Want to know a major reason Washington won’t make the cuts we need? Because winning elections is largely about getting “middle-class” votes, and just about any program can be spun as a savior for that big – but rarely defined by politicians – chunk of Americans.

Case in point, an animosity-stoking assertion uttered last week by House education committee Ranking Member George Miller.  As reported by CNN, the subject was the possibility of a cut being made to the federal Pell Grant program:

Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat, defended Pell Grant funding on Friday, calling it the “great equalizer” for millions of students.

“Pell is the reason they are able to go to college and get ahead,” Miller said. “It’s a shameful excuse and an attack on middle class families.”  

Now, what’s wrong with this assertion (other than its obnoxiousness and assumption that Pell doesn’t mainly enable colleges to raise their prices)? According to the U.S. Department of Education’s  description of Pell – and the long understood intent of the program – it isn’t for the middle class. It is for “low-income” Americans:

The Federal Pell Grant Program provides need-based grants to low-income undergraduate and certain postbaccalaureate students to promote access to postsecondary education.

So much for Pell-trimming proposals assaulting the middle class. Buy maybe Rep. Miller was doing more than just inaccurate, uncivil political posturing with his comments. Maybe he was revealing a dirty little secret: While Pell is better focused on low-income students than many federal aid programs, over time politicians increasingly aim all education efforts at the big mass called the middle class. Maybe Miller was accidentally acknowledging that aid for the poor morphs into aid for the not-poor because, well, that’s where the votes are.

Look at Pell, which, again, is relatively well targeted. In the 1975-76 school year, 1.2 million students received grants (table 1). By 2009-10, 8.1 million did – almost seven times more! Meanwhile, overall enrollment in degree-granting institutions grew from about 11.2 million in 1975 to 20.4 million in 2009, less than doubling.  Almost certainly, there has been less precise targeting to truly low-income students. Indeed, about 6 percent of Pell recipients (table 3-A) in 2009-10 came from families making at least $50,000 a year, or about the median household income in 2009.

Such expansion has been seen in K-12 education, too, though one wonders if Pell is singled out for big bucks in the debt-ceiling deal because people get Pell personally, unlike elemetary and secondary aid which goes to states and districts. Regardless, federal K-12 funding has spread farther and wider over the decades as politicians have sought to keep money coming even as their districts have lost people, and as allocations have become less and less focused on individual students. 

When waging class war, a powerful weapon is to portray your political enemy as intentionally hurting the most vulnerable people: the poor, children, etc. But the winning strategy? Sending money to the middle class, and capturing their precious votes.