Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Furman on Inequality

Following in my illustrious footsteps as an Economist.com guest blogger, Brookings senior fellow Jason Furman writes thusly of rising income inequality

According to the Congressional Budget Office’s income inequality data, the top 1 percent of households have seen their incomes go up by 7 percent and the bottom 80 percent have seen their income shares go down by 7 percent.  In total that is a $664 billion increase in inequality, representing $7,000 for each household in the bottom 80 percent and nearly $600,000 for each household in the top 1 percent.

That number motivates a Hamilton Project tax strategy paper co-authored by Larry Summers, Jason Bordoff and myself that is being released today.

It is far from obvious what has caused the change; in just the last month alone the National Bureau of Economic Research has released three working papers with divergent explanations:  a reduction in the bargaining power of workers, an increased reward for skills and worker productivity, and the destruction of good jobs by trade.

Regardless of the cause of rising inequality, lefties, utilitarians, Rawlsians and anyone with a deep-seated reverence for markets and the capitalist system should all be concerned.  As Alan Greenspan memorably stated, “income inequality is where the capitalist system is most vulnerable.  You can’t have the capitalist system if an increasing number of people think it is unjust.”

Well, I consider myself a sort of Rawlsian (a Rawlsekian!) with a deep-seated reverence for markets and the capitalist system. Should I be concerned? I agree with the sainted Greenspan that capitalism cannot survive a widespread conviction that it is unjust. And I agree that income inequality is one of those things that some thinkers like wheel out to try to convince us that capitalism is unjust, at least around the edges, in order to build popular support for such things as more steeply “progressive taxes combined with expanded benefits like health insurance,” like Furman wants. But I’m not so worried by rising income inequality as I am by Furman’s facile slide from income inequality numbers, which are meaningless by themselves, to the possibility of a crisis of legitimacy.

It is worth repeatedly and forcefully emphasizing that income inequality may or may not be symptomatic of injustice. The three hypotheses for rising inequality Furman mentions are perfectly consistent with advances in justice. And if they are generating income inequality, then it may vindicate capitalism. For example, the loss of jobs, a decrease in wages, or a decrease in bargaining power for some workers may be a consequence of lifting coercive restrictions on voluntary exchange across borders – restrictions that are themselves a form of injustice. Furman himself notes that protectionist policies could decrease inequality, though he advises against them, and rightly so, since they are unjust. But if protectionist policies are lifted, and inequality increases, that uptick in inequality is a side-effect of justice, not a symptom of injustice.

Inequality may reflect real injustice in our culture and institutions, and some portion of it probably does. But then our focus ought to be on rooting out those injustices, not papering them over with confiscatory redistribution which, in the absence of a reason to do it other than arbitrarily reducing measured inequality, is straightforwardly immoral.

Let’s set aside the matter of the intelligibility of “shares” of “national income” as a subject of justice for another time.  

Another Government Shakedown

Politicians are agitating for a big tax hike on the private equity industry, but the motive for this talk may involve more than just a desire to have more money to spend. Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal explains that politicians threaten an industry in order to extract campaign contributions. The column suggests this is what spurred the attack on the so-called junk-bond industry in the 1980s. Another good example would be the assaults on Microsoft and Intel. This does not mean politicians are like mobsters. Mobsters, after all, don’t add insult to injury by trying to rationalize their protection rackets as being for the public good:

Being a shrewd bunch, the private equity industry presumably has gotten the message: When vast new fountains of wealth open up in the economy, Congress must receive its ransom in campaign donations. Delivering the wagged finger were none other than Max Baucus and Charles Grassley, chairman and ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, who’ve taken to musing aloud about how the tax code’s treatment of private equity’s lately fabulous profits might be revised. The bipartisan nature of the initiative should reassure readers that there’s no philosophical issue here. It’s purely bidness. You, private equity, have been remiss in your patriotic duty. Cough up. Anyone who recalls the junk bond wars of the 1980s will notice a pattern. Then too, Congress was awash in proposals for taxing the takeover industry: by eliminating the interest deduction for junk bond interest, by imposing an excise tax on assets acquired in a hostile takeover, etc. These ideas came to naught, not least because of the fright the proposals put into the stock market. But the endless debate unlimbered a delicious flow of campaign dollars from all concerned. …the message has been received. Private equity has now set up a Washington trade group and has opened its pockets to politicians, with Barack Obama being a special heartthrob. Oh, happy day for members of the House and Senate tax committees, who lived for years off the junk bond wars and now will live for years off the private equity plutocrats.

Canadian Journalists Can’t Swallow SiCKO

Michael Moore’s new film SiCKO praises the government-run health care systems of such countries as Canada.  Moore claims the film was warmly received at Cannes by Americans from both sides of the political aisle. 

Canadian journalists, however, were a little more skeptical.  Here’s how Peter Howell, a film critic for the Toronto Star, described their response to SiCKO:

Michael Moore is handing out fake bandages to promote his new film Sicko, an exposé of the failings of the U.S. health care system.  But he may feel like applying a couple to himself after the mauling he received yesterday from several Canadian journalists – present company included – following the film’s first viewing at the Cannes Film Festival.

“You Canadians! You used to be so funny!” an exasperated Moore said at a press conference in the Palais des Festivals.  “You gave us all our best comedians. When did you turn so dark?”

We Canucks were taking issue with the large liberties Sicko takes with the facts, with its lavish praise for Canada’s government-funded medicare system compared with America’s for-profit alternative.

While justifiably demonstrating the evils of an American system where dollars are the major determinant of the quality of medicare care a person receives, and where restoring a severed finger could cost an American $60,000 compared to nothing at all for a Canadian, Sicko makes it seem as if Canada’s socialized medicine is flawless and that Canadians are satisfied with the status quo…

Other Canadian journalists spoke of the long wait times Canadians face for health care, much longer than the few minutes Moore suggests in Sicko. Moore, who has come under considerable fire for factual inaccuracies in his films, parried back with more questionable claims…

Sicko, to be released in North America on June 29, is by turns enlightening and manipulative, humorous and maudlin. It makes many valid and urgent points about the crisis of U.S. health care, but they are blunted by Moore’s habit of playing fast and loose with the facts. Whether it’s a case of the end justifying the means will ultimately be for individual viewers to decide.

On June 21 – the day after the D.C. premiere of SiCKO – the Cato Institute will help viewers decide when it hosts a screening of clips from SiCKO and short films by independent filmmakers who are more critical of Canada’s Medicare system.  Click here to pre-register.  And arrive early: seating is limited. 

Live Free Or Not

NH sealIn this age of galloping leviathan, one cause for joy is New Hampshire’s continued willingness to thumb its nose at various dictates from Washington, D.C. In some cases, the state’s federalism obstinacy prohibits it from receiving Uncle Sam’s largess — a penalty that many Granite Staters consider a sign of honor.

But the joy of New Hampshire was muted a bit this spring when the state’s General Court (the legislature) flirted with giving up one of its most celebrated examples of recalcitrance— the refusal to adopt mandatory seat belt laws for adults. A bill mandating the wearing of seat belts made it through the state’s House of Representatives before stalling in a Senate committee. What’s more, proponents scored a victory by placing a “seat belt policy exploratory committee” rider on a completely unrelated piece of legislation.

The standard justification for seat belt laws — that government is looking out for your well-being — would have little truck in “Live Free or Die” New Hampshire. So bill proponents tried a different tack; as noted in an AP story, they claimed that they’re simply looking out for the taxpayer:

“Live Free or Die would be great but you expect everyone to pay for you,” said Rep. Jennifer Brown, the bill’s prime sponsor. “The state has to pick up the medical bills and it could be for the rest of your life.”

State. Sen. Maggie Hassan said mandating seat belt usage is just as much about her rights as those who don’t like the idea.

“People like me who use my seat belt will wind up paying for people who don’t,” she said. “This is about my rights.”

Notice the strange conception of “rights” assumed by this argument: Because government offers a benefit, government — acting on behalf of “taxpayer rights” — can dictate people’s behavior because of the possibility that some people who engage in that behavior might use that benefit. (This is different than, say, work requirements for welfare — in that case, people choose to accept a benefit, and government is placing a condition on the receipt of that benefit.)

The slippery slope problem of such thinking is obvious. Because government provides an education benefit to children, can it mandate certain behaviors for adults of child-bearing age? Because government provides some health benefits, can it regulate everyone’s risk-taking behavior? Because government provides retirement benefits, can it dictate people’s employment decisions?

This should prompt good civil libertarians to look skeptically at any proposal to create or expand government benefits. Laocoon’s warning can be updated: Beware of politicians bearing benefits.

Does Globalization Undermine Redistribution?

An article in the UK-based Guardian notes that wealthier regions within nations and wealthier nations within Europe are increasingly unhappy with the amount of money being used to subsidize less productive areas. The article suggests the growing unease is a function of globalization, though it is more plausible to argue that the high tax rates associated with redistributionist policies are becoming more untenable because of globalization:

…disputes over public money and how to spread it fairly are rife across large tracts of Europe, eroding national solidarity, feeding separatism, encouraging populism, and generating friction between Europe’s wealthy centres of excellence and their less fortunate national hinterlands. The rich bits of Europe are revolting. And it is some of the most successful and attractive cities on the continent that are in the revolutionary vanguard. From the fashion and finance mecca of Milan to the hi-tech centre of Munich, from the world’s diamond capital, Antwerp, to the vibrant coastal hub of Barcelona, Europe’s most dynamic cities and regions are increasingly rebelling against “subsidising” the poorer parts of their countries, demanding to keep their home-grown wealth, and causing headaches for central governments. … In Italy, the centre-left government of Romano Prodi has just received a drubbing in local elections, particularly in the north, not least because the north perceives Rome as the agent pilfering its hard-earned cash only to hand it over to the “spongeing” south where the Mafia and Camorra soak up the subsidies. …In Belgium, Flemish nationalists complain that the public sector payrolls in Wallonia are twice the size of those in Flanders. “It’s majority socialist in the south, the last Soviet republic in Europe,” says Filip Dewinter, the Vlaams Belang leader. “They’re stealing our money with the collaboration of the government in Brussels. We’re a hard-working people, very prosperous, low unemployment, and we’re giving them €12bn (£8bn) every year to finance their social security. We can stand alone.” In Germany, the wealthy southern states of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg balked at the Berlin government’s health service reforms last year because they had to pay more into the national kitty than poorer parts of Germany. In Britain, in the debate over Scottish devolution or independence, the wealthy south-east appears increasingly aggrieved over the Barnett formula that ordains higher per capita public spending in Scotland than in England.

How I Learned to Read the New York Times While Simultaneously Scratching My Head

From a column on tax reform by Floyd Norris in today’s Times:

“Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, has traveled around to promote what he calls a Fair Flat Tax Act, which is basically an attempt to go back to what Mr. Reagan enacted. It would get rid of many deductions — but save some of the more popular ones, like retirement savings accounts and mortgage interest — and have three tax brackets, of 15, 25 and 35 percent.” [emphasis mine]

Scandlen on “The Grand Poobahs of Massachusetts”

In the most recent newsletter from Consumers for Health Care Choices, Greg Scandlen has some fun with the Massachusetts “Connector Authority” created by then-Governor Mitt Romney:

It must be fun to be a Grand Poobah of health insurance in Massachusetts. Here you sit on your Grand Poobah cushion while the peasants come before you to plead their cases. One begs you to limit copays for visits and drugs because they add up pretty quickly. A doctor asks you to disallow deductibles of $2,000 because it provides “inadequate coverage.” Yet a business owner says that is the only kind of coverage they can afford. A self-employed artist requests that you consider net income, not gross income because she spends so much of her gross on art supplies. A consumer advocate asks you to disallow Health Savings Accounts, while an AIDS activist wants you to provide unlimited lifetime benefits. And it is up to you - the All Powerful and Mighty Grand Poobah of the Connector - to grant these wishes or deny them on behalf of the entire fiefdom. All must obey or be severely penalized.

And yet the deadline for obedience (July 1) approaches and a mere 100 people a week (out of the 160,000 required) are signing up for coverage. In the Olden Days we could send Paul Revere to “every Middlesex village and farm” to alert the peasants to their new “responsibility,” but today we’ll have to settle for spending $3 million in taxpayer money on advertising and delay the deadline until November. Surely by then, they will humble themselves before the Poobahs and do as they have been told. There will be no Tea Parties this time around.