Punitive Marginal Tax Rates and A Partial Appeal to The Economics Literature

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hit headlines last week for advocating marginal income tax rates “as high as 60% or 70%” on those earning $10 million plus per year. Under her plan, revenues from such a policy would be put towards funding a “Green New Deal.”

Matt Yglesias, Paul Krugman and Noah Smith were quick out of the blocks to defend the idea of massive marginal tax hikes on high earners as simply sensible, mainstream economics. They appealed to the work of economists Peter Diamond, Emmanuel Saez, Thomas Piketty and others, who have set out the case for very high marginal tax rates on top incomes in academic journals over the last two decades.

These economists have indeed recommended the optimal marginal tax rate for the top 1% of income earners in the U.S. should be a combined (federal, state and local taxes) rate of 73 percent or higher – designed with the aim of maximizing revenue from top taxpayers.

But their recommendation is not analogous to jacking up marginal federal income tax rates on very high earners in our current code. Furthermore, their result depends on highly contentious philosophical positions and economic assumptions.

Labor’s Share of GDP: Wrong Answers to a Wrong Question

A recent paper by David Autor of MIT, Lawrence Katz of Harvard and others, “The Fall of the Labor Share and the Rise of Superstar Firms,” begins by posing a mystery: “The fall of labor’s share of GDP in the United States and many other countries in recent decades is well documented but its causes remain uncertain.”  They construct a model to blame it on U.S. businesses that are too successful with consumers.  

The Curse of Motivated Reasoning against Econ 101

Earlier this month, James Kwak penned an extensive critique for The Atlantic of the Econ 101 view that government-imposed minimum wage rates lead to job losses. But many of his own arguments for why the Econ 101 story might be misguided appear to be theoretically and empirically doubtful. What’s more, he does not actually show that significant minimum wage hikes would be good for reducing poverty.

Capitalism, Global Trade, and the Reduction in Poverty and Inequality

Drawing on a new World Bank study, Washington Post columnist Charles Lane today notesa vast reduction in poverty and income inequality worldwide over the past quarter-century” – despite what you might think if you listen to Pope Francis, Bernie Sanders, and other voices prominent in the media.

Specifically, the world’s Gini coefficient — the most commonly used measure of income distribution — has fallen from 0.69 in 1988 to 0.63 in 2011. (A higher Gini coefficient connotes greater inequality, up to a maximum of 1.0.)

That may seem modest until you consider that the estimate’s author, former World Bank economist Branko Milanovic, thinks we may be witnessing the first period of declining global inequality since the Industrial Revolution.

Note that this hopeful figure applies to the world’s population as though every individual lived in one big country. When Milanovic assessed the distribution of income between nations, adjusted for population, the improvement was even more striking: a decline in the Gini coefficient from 0.60 in 1988 to 0.48 in 2014.

The global middle class expanded, as real income went up between 70 percent and 80 percent for those around the world who were already earning at or near the global median, including some 200 million Chinese, 90 million Indians and 30 million people each in Indonesia, Egypt and Brazil.

Those in the bottom third of the global income distribution registered real income gains between 40 percent and 70 percent, Milanovic reports. The share of the world’s population living on $1.25 or less per day — what the World Bank defines as “absolute poverty” — fell from 44 percent to 23 percent.

So maybe this is a result of all the agitation on behalf of a more moral or planned economy? No, says Lane, citing Milanovic:

Did this historic progress, with its overwhelmingly beneficial consequences for millions of the world’s humblest inhabitants, occur because everyone finally adopted “democratic socialism”? Was it due to a conscious, organized effort to construct a “moral economy” as per Vatican standards?

To the contrary: The big story after 1988 is the collapse of communism and the spread of market institutions, albeit imperfect ones, to India, China and Latin America. This was a process mightily abetted by freer flows of international trade and private capital, which were, in turn, promoted by a bipartisan succession of U.S. presidents and Congresses.

The extension of capitalism fueled economic growth, which Milanovic correctly calls “the most powerful tool for reducing global poverty and inequality.”

This is the good news about the world today. Indeed, it’s the most important news about our world. We hear so much about poverty, inequality, gaps, resource depletion, and the like, it’s a wonder any NPR listeners can bear to get out of bed in the morning. But as the economic historian Deirdre McCloskey says, this is the “Great Fact,” the most important fact about our world today – the enormous and unprecedented growth in living standards that began in the western world around 1700. She calls it “a factor of sixteen”: we moderns consume at least 16 times the food, clothing, housing, and education that our ancestors did in London in the 18th century. And this vast increase in wealth that began in northwestern Europe, mostly Britain and the Netherlands, has now spread to most of Europe, the United States, Japan, and increasingly to the rest of the world.

2016: the “Year of the 1%” or the Year Poverty Fell to a New Low?

This past weekend, The Economist uploaded and shared a short video to its Facebook page called, “The year of the 1 percent.” The video shows a graph superimposed over the Earth seen from space, while a voice narrates, “2016 is set to be a more unequal world than ever before. For the first time, the richest 1 percent of the population will enjoy a greater share of global wealth than the other 99 percent.” The video has been viewed more than one hundred thousand times.


The Fundamental Fallacy of Redistribution

The idea that government could redistribute income willy-nilly with impunity did not originate with Senator Bernie Sanders. On the contrary, it may have begun with two of the most famous 19th Century economists, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill.   Karl Marx, on the other side, found the idea preposterous, calling it “vulgar socialism.”

Mill wrote, “The laws and conditions of the production of wealth partake of the character of physical truths.  There is nothing optional or arbitrary about them… . It is not so with the Distribution of Wealth.  That is a matter of human institution only.  The things once there, mankind, individually, can do with them as they like.”[1]

Mill’s distinction between production and distribution appears to encourage the view that any sort of government intervention in distribution is utterly harmless – a free lunch.  But redistribution aims to take money from people who earned it and give it to those who did not.  And that, of course, has adverse effects on the incentives of those who receive the government’s benefits and on taxpayers who finance those benefits.

David Ricardo had earlier made the identical mistake. In his 1936 book The Good Society (p. 196), Walter Lippmann criticized Ricardo as being “not concerned with the increase of wealth, for wealth was increasing and the economists did not need to worry about that.” But Ricardo saw income distribution as an interesting issue of political economy and “set out to ascertain ‘the laws which determine the division of the produce of industry among the classes who concur in its formation.’

Lippmann wisely argued that, “separating the production of wealth from the distribution of wealth” was “almost certainly an error. For the amount of wealth which is available for distribution cannot in fact be separated from the proportions in which it is distributed… . Moreover, the proportion in which wealth is distributed must have an effect on the amount produced.” 

The third classical economist to address this issue was Karl Marx.  There were many fatal flaws in Marxism, including the whole notion that a society is divided into two armies – workers and capitalists.[2]  Late in his career, however, Marx wrote a fascinating 1875 letter to his allies in the German Social Democratic movement criticizing a redistributionist scheme he found unworkable.  In this famous “Critique of the Gotha Program,” Marx was highly critical of “vulgar socialism” and considered the whole notion of “fair distribution” to be “obsolete verbal rubbish.”  In response to the Gotha’s program claim that society’s production should be equally distributed to all, Marx asked, “To those who do not work as well? … But one man is superior to another physically or mentally and so supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time… . This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor… It is, therefore, a right to inequality…”  

Big Problems with Anthony Atkinson’s “Inequality: What Can Be Done?”

“The godfather of inequality research,”  is how The Economist describes septuagenarian  British economist Anthony Atkinson. A frequent co-author with Thomas Piketty and Joe Stiglitz, Sir Atkinson has written a book about inequality which a  New York Times reviewer described as a “flurry of largely recycled policy proposals.”   Inequality: What can be done? is all about “unapologetic support for aggressive government intervention,” says The Economist, and “a throwback to the 1960s and 1970s.” 

There is no need to buy the book, because the following summary – “15 Proposals from Tony Atkinson’s book ‘Inequality: What can be done?’ – is more than enough.  Each Proposal is in the author’s own words, but followed by my own view of Problems with those plans.  [I skip Proposals 9-11, which are just inflated versions of policies similar to those in the U.S. – the earned income credit, estate & gift tax, and property tax.]

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