Posts Tagged ‘Class warfare’

I’ve already shared a bunch of data and evidence on the importance of low tax rates.

A review of the academic evidence by the Tax Foundation found overwhelming support for the notion that lower tax rates are good for growth.

An economist from Cornell found lower tax rates boost GDP.

Other economists found lower tax rates boost job creation, savings, and output.

Even economists at the Paris-based OECD have determined that high tax rates undermine economic performance.

And it’s become apparent, with even the New York Times taking notice, that high tax rates drive away high-achieving people.

We’re going to augment this list with some additional evidence.

In a study published by a German think tank, three economists from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark look at the impact of high marginal tax rates on Danish economic performance.

Here’s what they set out to measure.

…taxation distorts the functioning of the market economy by creating a wedge between the private return and the social return to a reallocation of resources, leaving socially desirable opportunities unexploited as a result. …This paper studies the impact of taxation on the mobility and allocation of labor, and quantifies the efficiency loss from misallocation of labor caused by taxation. …labor mobility responses are fundamentally different from the hours-of-work responses of the basic labor supply model… Our analysis builds on a standard search theoretic framework… We incorporate non-linear taxation into this setting and estimate the structural parameters of the model using employer-employee register based data for the full Danish population of workers and workplaces for the years 2004-2006. The estimated model is then used to examine the impact of different changes in the tax system, thereby characterizing the distortionary effects of taxation on the allocation of labor.

They produced several sets of results, including a look at the additional growth and output generated by moving to a system of lump-sum taxation (which presumably eliminates all disincentive effects).

But even when they looked at more modest reforms, such as a flat tax with a relatively high rate, they found the Danish economy would reap significant benefits.

…it is possible to reap a very large part of the potential efficiency gain by going “half the way”and replace the current taxation with a ‡at tax rate of 30 percent on all income. This shift from a Scandinavian tax system with high marginal tax rates to a level of taxation in line with low-tax OECD countries such as the United States increases total income by 20 percent and yields an efficiency gain measured in proportion to initial income of 10 percent. …a transition from a Scandinavian system with high marginal taxes to a system along the lines of low-tax OECD countries such as the United States. This reduces the rate of non-employment by around 10 percentage points, increases aggregate income by almost 20 percent (relative to the Scandinavian income level), and gives an efficiency gain measured in proportion to income of 9.9 percent. Thus, almost 80 percent of the efficiency loss from marginal taxation (9.7% divided by 12.4%) would be eliminated by shifting from a Scandinavian tax system to the system of a low-tax OECD country according to these estimates.

The authors also confirmed that lower tax rates would generate revenue feedback. In other words, the Laffer Curve exists.

We may also use the reform experiment to compute the marginal excess burden of taxation as described above. When measured in proportion to the mechanical loss of tax revenue, we obtain an estimate of 87 percent. …this estimate also corresponds to the degree of self-financing of the tax cut. Thus, the increase in tax revenue from the behavioral response is 87 percent of the mechanical loss in tax revenue.

Too bad we can’t get the Joint Committee on Taxation in Washington to join the 21st Century. Those bureaucrats still base their work on the preposterous assumption that taxes have no impact on overall economic performance.

Since we just looked at a study of the growth generated by reducing very high tax rates, let’s now consider the opposite scenario. What happens if you take medium-level tax rates and raise them dramatically?

The Tax Foundation looks at precisely this issue. The group estimated the likely results if lawmakers adopted the class-warfare policies proposed by Thomas Piketty.

Piketty suggests higher taxes on the wealthiest among us. He calls for a global wealth tax, and he recommends establishing a top income tax rate of 80 percent, with a next-to-top income tax rate of 50 or 60 percent for the upper-middle class. …This study…provides quantitative estimates of what his proposed tax rates would mean for capital formation, jobs, the level of income, and government revenue. This study also estimates how Piketty’s proposed income tax rates would affect the distribution of income in the United States.

Piketty, of course, thinks that even confiscatory levels of taxation have no negative impact on economic performance.

Piketty claims people (or at least the upper-income people he would tax so heavily) are totally insensitive to marginal tax rates. In his world view, upper-income taxpayers will work and invest just as much as before even if dramatically higher taxes reduce their after-tax rewards to a fraction of what they were previously. …Piketty’s vision of the world strains credulity.

When the Tax Foundation crunched the numbers, though, its experts found that Piketty’s proposal would be devastating.

Under Piketty’s 55 and 80 percent tax brackets, people in the new, ultra-high tax brackets will work and invest less because they will be able to keep so little of the reward from the last hour of work and the last dollar of investment. …As the supplies of labor and capital in the production process decline, the economy’s output will also contract. Although it is only people with upper incomes who will directly pay the 55 and 80 percent tax rates, people throughout the economy will indirectly bear some of the tax burden. For example, the average person’s wages will be lower than otherwise because middle-income workers will have less equipment and software to enhance their productivity, and wages depend on productivity. Similarly, people throughout the economy will have fewer employment opportunities and will lose desirable goods and services, because businesses will grow more slowly and be less innovative.

The magnitude of the damage would depend on whether the higher tax rates also applied to dividends and capital gains. Here’s what the Tax Foundation estimated would happen to the economy if dividends and capital gains were not hit with Piketty-style tax rates.

These are some very dismal numbers.

But now look at the results if tax rates also are increased on dividends and capital gains. The dramatic increase in double taxation (dwarfing what Obama wanted) would have catastrophic consequences for overall investment (the “capital stock”). This would lead to a big loss in jobs and a dramatic reduction in overall economic output.

The Tax Foundation then measures the impact of these policies on the well-being of people in various income classes.

Needless to say, upper-income taxpayers suffer substantial losses. But the rest of us also suffer as well.

…the poor and middle class would also lose. They would suffer a large, but indirect, tax burden as a result of the smaller economy. Their after-tax incomes would fall over 3 percent if capital gains and dividends retain their current-law tax treatment and almost 17 percent if capital gains and dividends are taxed like ordinary income.

And since I’m sure Piketty and his crowd would want to subject capital gains and dividends to confiscatory tax rates, the 17 percent drop is a more realistic assessment of their economic agenda.

Though, to be fair, Piketty-style policies would make society more “equal.” But, as the Tax Foundation notes, some methods of achieving equality are very bad for lower-income people.

…a reasonable question to ask is whether a middle-income family is made better off if their income drops 3.2 percent while the income of a family in the top 1 percent drops 21.0 percent, or their income plummets 16.8 percent while the income of a family in the top 1 percent plummets 43.3 percent.

Of course, if Margaret Thatcher is correct, the left has no problem with this outcome.

But for those of us who care about better lives for ordinary people, this is confirmation that envy isn’t – or at least shouldn’t be – a basis for tax policy.

Sadly, that’s not the case. We’ve already seen the horrible impact of Hollande’s Piketty-style policies in France. And Obama said he would be perfectly content to impose higher tax rates even if the resulting economic damage is so severe that no additional revenue is collected.

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Some folks on the right in Washington, generally known as reformicons (short for reform conservatives), want the Republican Party to de-emphasize marginal tax rate reductions and instead focus on providing tax relief to parents.

There are many leaders in this movement and, if you want to learn more about the tax proposals being discussed, I specifically recommend the writings of Robert Stein, James Capretta, James Pethokoukis, Ramesh Ponnuru, Yuval Levin, Charles Blahous, Jason Fichtner, and Reihan Salam (and I’m sure I’m unintentionally leaving off many other worthy contributions).

I explained last year what I like (and don’t like) about reform conservatism, but I haven’t specifically analyzed the tax agenda of the reformicons.

Time to rectify that oversight. The Wall Street Journal was kind enough to give me some space so I could share my thoughts on this topic.

I start by outlining the debate, albeit in simplified form because of space constraints.

There’s a policy debate among conservatives in Washington about the best way to cut taxes and reform the tax code. The supply-siders want to replicate the success of Reaganomics with lower marginal tax rates. But there’s also a camp who call themselves “reform conservatives” who want income tax credits or payroll tax cuts explicitly for the purpose of reducing tax liabilities for middle-class parents. The supply-siders argue that if you want to encourage more work, saving, investment and entrepreneurship, then it is a good idea to reduce marginal tax rates on productive behavior. …Those in the other camp…don’t necessarily disagree with the supply-siders. They note that it was important to lower marginal tax rates in 1980 when the top personal tax rate was a confiscatory 70%. But now that the top rate is “only” about 40%, they argue, lower tax rates won’t deliver nearly as much bang for the buck.

The reformicons are right. Dropping the top tax rate from 40 percent will help the economy, but the pro-growth effect won’t be enormous. At least not compared to what happened during the Reagan years when the top tax rate was slashed from 70 percent to 28 percent.

And, as this leftist cartoon suggests, many Republicans act as if across-the-board tax rate reductions are an elixir for every ill.

But can reformicons suggest a better way of cutting and/or reforming taxes?

I’m not convinced that their agenda of child-oriented tax relief is the right answer.

In my column, I note that many of their policies have already been implemented, yet there’s little if any evidence that these tax cuts have generated positive outcomes.

…reform conservatives say it’s time for new ideas. That’s a nice concept, but Republicans already have enacted many of their proposed policies. The child tax credit was adopted in the 1990s and expanded during the Bush years. The earned income credit also funnels a lot of money (in the form of tax relief or cash payments) to families with children, and that provision also has been significantly expanded over the years. These policies have worked, at least in the sense that households with children now face lower tax liabilities. There is little evidence, though, to suggest positive economic or social outcomes. Were families strengthened? Did the economy grow faster? Did middle-income households feel more secure?

The reformicons often argue that their tax proposals are politically more appealing.

That may be true, but that doesn’t mean they are political winners, particularly if reformicons are trying to appease the class-warfare left, which will simply argue that tax cuts targeted at families making less than, say, $100,000 will be even “fairer” if they are targeted at families making less than $50,000.

Or maybe targeted at households who pay no tax, which means more transfer spending through the tax code!

The tax-credit reformers also argue that their proposals are much less susceptible to class-warfare demagoguery that is the supply-side approach, since tax relief flows to lower- and middle-income voters. …But here’s the downside: Conservatives can bend over backward to appease the class-warfare crowd, but they can never outflank them. …Once conservatives have accepted the left’s premise that tax policy should be based on static distribution tables, they won’t have a ready answer for the left’s gambit.

But as far as I’m concerned, the real issue is how to raise take-home pay.

The reformicons want to make families more secure by reducing how much the IRS takes from their paychecks.

I certainly like the idea of boosting post-tax income, but I contend that it would be even better to focus on policies that increase pre-tax income.

The most commonly cited reason for family-based tax relief is to raise take-home pay. That’s a noble goal, but it overlooks the fact that there are two ways to raise after-tax incomes. Child-based tax cuts are an effective way of giving targeted relief to families with children… The more effective policy—at least in the long run—is to boost economic growth so that families have more income in the first place. Even very modest changes in annual growth, if sustained over time, can yield big increases in household income. … long-run growth will average only 2.3% over the next 75 years. If good tax policy simply raised annual growth to 2.5%, it would mean about $4,500 of additional income for the average household within 25 years. This is why the right kind of tax policy is so important.

In other words, our economy is under-performing and that is the greatest threat to the financial security of families.

Folks on the left say it is the fault of “secular stagnation” and that the burden of government should be further expanded, but both reformicons and supply-siders agree that we’ll get far better results by focusing on tax cuts.

But which tax cuts?

I end my column with some glass-half-full analysis. The reformicons may not be thrilled by lower income tax rates and the supply-siders may not be excited by child-oriented tax cuts, but both camps are quite sympathetic to tax reforms that address the punitive double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

While the camps disagree on lower individual income tax rates vs. child-oriented tax relief, both agree that the tax code’s bias against capital formation is very misguided. The logical compromise might be to focus on reforms that boost saving and investment, such as lowering the corporate tax rate, reducing the double taxation of dividends and capital gains, and allowing immediate expensing of business investment. These reforms would have strong supply-side effects. And since more saving and investment will lead to increased productivity, workers will enjoy higher wages, including households with children.

To be sure, some critics will say this type of tax agenda is too “business friendly,” which is an indirect way of saying that average voters may not understand how they benefit from tax reforms that don’t have a big and fast impact on their paychecks.

So maybe the right answer is to rip up the entire tax code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

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I’ve had some fun over the years by pointing out that Paul Krugman has butchered numbers when writing about fiscal policy in nations such as France, Estonia, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

So I shouldn’t be surprised that he wants to catch me making an error. But I’m not sure his “gotcha” moment is very persuasive. Here’s some of what he wrote for today’s New York Times.

Gov. Jerry Brown was able to push through a modestly liberal agenda of higher taxes, spending increases and a rise in the minimum wage. California also moved enthusiastically to implement Obamacare. …Needless to say, conservatives predicted doom. …Daniel J. Mitchell of the Cato Institute declared that by voting for Proposition 30, which authorized those tax increases, “the looters and moochers of the Golden State” (yes, they really do think they’re living in an Ayn Rand novel) were committing “economic suicide.”

Kudos to Krugman for having read Atlas Shrugged, or for at least knowing that Rand sometimes referred to to “looters and moochers.” Though I have to subtract points because he thinks I’m a conservative rather than a libertarian.

But what about his characterization of my position? Well, he’s right, though I’m predicting slow-motion suicide. Voting for a tax hike isn’t akin to jumping off the Golden Gate bridge. Instead, by further penalizing success and expanding the burden of government, California is engaging in the economic equivalent of smoking four packs of cigarettes every day instead of three and one-half packs.

Here’s some of what I wrote.

I’m generally reluctant to make predictions, but I feel safe in stating that this measure is going to accelerate California’s economic decline. Some successful taxpayers are going to tunnel under the proverbial Berlin Wall and escape to states with better (or less worse) fiscal policy. And that will mean fewer jobs and lower wages than otherwise would be the case.

Anyhow, Krugman wants readers to think that California is a success rather than a failure because the state now has a budget surplus and there’s been an uptick in job creation.

Here’s more of what he wrote.

There is, I’m sorry to say, no sign of the promised catastrophe. If tax increases are causing a major flight of jobs from California, you can’t see it in the job numbers. Employment is up 3.6 percent in the past 18 months, compared with a national average of 2.8 percent; at this point, California’s share of national employment, which was hit hard by the bursting of the state’s enormous housing bubble, is back to pre-recession levels. …And, yes, the budget is back in surplus. …So what do we learn from the California comeback? Mainly, that you should take anti-government propaganda with large helpings of salt. Tax increases aren’t economic suicide; sometimes they’re a useful way to pay for things we need.

I’m not persuaded, and I definitely don’t think this counts as a “gotcha” moment.

First, I’m a bit surprised that he wants to brag about California’s employment numbers. The Golden State has one of the highest joblessness rates in the nation. Indeed, only four states rank below California.

Second, I don’t particularly care whether the state has a budget surplus. I care about the size of government.

Krugman might respond by saying that the tax hike generated revenues, thus disproving the Laffer Curve, which is something that does matter to supporters of small government.

But the Laffer Curve doesn’t say that all tax hikes lose revenue. Instead, it says that tax rate increases will have a negative impact on taxable income. It’s then an empirical question to figure out if revenues go up a lot, go up a little, stay flat, or decline.

And what matters most of all is the long-run impact. You can rape and pillage upper-income taxpayers in the short run, particularly if a tax hike is retroactive. In the long run, though, people can move, re-organize their finances, and take other steps to reduce their exposure to the greed of the political class.

In other words, people can vote with their feet…and with their money.

And that’s what seems to be happening in California. Take a look at how much income has emigrated from the state since 1992.

Next we have a map showing which states, over time, are gaining taxable income and which states are losing income (and I invite you to look at how zero-income tax states tend to be very green).

The data isn’t population adjusted, so populous states are over-represented, but you’ll still see that California is losing while Texas is winning.

And here is similar data from the Tax Foundation.

So what’s all of this mean?

Well, it means I’m standing by my prediction of slow-motion economic suicide. The state is going to become the France of America…at least if Illinois doesn’t get there first.

California has some natural advantages that make it very desirable. And I suspect that the state’s politicians could get away with above-average taxes simply because certain people will pay some sort of premium to enjoy the climate and geography.

But the number of people willing to pay will shrink as the premium rises.

In other words, this Chuck Asay cartoon may be the most accurate depiction of California’s future. And this Lisa Benson cartoon shows what will happen between now and then.

But I won’t hold my breath waiting for a mea culpa from Krugman.

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Why do statists make so many mistakes with data? Paul Krugman, for instance, has butchered numbers when writing about fiscal policy in nations such as France, Estonia, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

But Krugman isn’t alone. We also have Thomas Piketty, who was lionized by the left after publication of Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Ever since his book was published, various experts have called into question the veracity of Piketty’s numbers. Most recently, here’s some of what Alan Reynolds, my colleague at the Cato Institute, wrote about his data for the Wall Street Journal.

Thomas Piketty…remains a hero on the left, but the honeymoon may be drawing to a sour close as evidence mounts that his numbers don’t add up. …data are so misleading as to be worthless. They attempt to estimate top U.S. wealth shares on the basis of that portion of capital income reported on individual income tax returns—interest, dividends, rent and capital gains. This won’t work because federal tax laws in 1981, 1986, 1997 and 2003 momentously changed (1) the rules about which sorts of capital income have to be reported, (2) the tax incentives to report business income on individual rather than corporate tax forms, and (3) the tax incentives for high-income taxpayers to respond to lower tax rates on capital gains and dividends by realizing more capital gains and holding more dividend-paying stocks.

Alan lists some of specific problems that exist when you try to make sweeping assertions based on tax return data.

For example, interest income from tax-exempt municipal bonds was unreported before 1987—so the subsequent reporting of income created an illusory increase in top incomes and wealth. Since 1997, by contrast, most capital gains on home sales have disappeared from the tax returns of middle-income couples, thanks to a $500,000 tax exemption. …since the mid-1980s, most capital income and capital gains of middle-income savers began to vanish from tax returns by migrating into IRAs, 401(k)s and other retirement and college savings plans. Balances in private retirement plans rose to $12.4 trillion in 2012 from $875 billion in 1984. …When individual tax rates dropped from 70% in 1980 to 28% in 1988, this provoked a massive shift: from retaining private business income inside C-corporations to letting earnings pass through to the owners’ individual tax returns via partnerships, LLCs and Subchapter S corporations. …Although more frequent asset sales showed up as an increase in capital income, realized gains are no more valuable than unrealized gains so realization of gains tells us almost nothing about wealth. Similarly, a portfolio shift from municipal bonds, coins or cash into dividend-paying stocks after the tax on dividends fell to 15% in 2003 might look like more capital income when it was merely swapping an untaxed asset for a taxable one.

So what’s the bottom line?

Mr. Piketty’s premonition of soaring U.S. wealth shares for the top 1% finds no credible support in his book or elsewhere.

But let’s now conduct a thought experiment. What if Piketty’s data was right? Would that justify punitive class-warfare tax rates?

I’ve already explained that this would be the wrong approach.

And Diana Furchtgott-Roth of the Manhattan Institute cites some new academic research to make a similar point.

Meltzer and Richard show that using redistribution to ameliorate income inequality is not only ineffective, but worsens the problem that policy makers seek to cure. …Since workers’ productivity levels increase with the more they produce, and because higher taxes create disincentives to working, taxes lead to lower economic growth. …Higher tax rates that fund transfer payments hamper economic growth. That’s because they increase the number of people who depend on these payments and find it preferable not to work. There also is less learning-by-doing among those who work. …As taxes and transfers rise, hours of work and acquired skills decline, reducing economic growth. …it is this decline in hours worked for low-productivity workers that leads to more economic inequality — not the growth of technology nor the rent-seeking privileges of the rich, two causes cited by Piketty. Reduced effort by the rich in reaction to higher taxes comes at the expense of economic growth, which has the potential to raise everyone’s living standards and increase economic opportunity. …Meltzer and Richard show that the growth of government is the true driver behind inequality.

In other words, the supposed solution of ever-higher tax rates from folks such as Piketty (and Obama) would be harmful to the overall economy and be especially damaging to those with lower incomes.

If we want to help the poor, the goal should be to achieve faster economic growth by enabling capitalism and entrepreneurship.

In other words, copy Hong Kong and Singapore, not France.

Here’s the video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity explaining why class-warfare tax policy is so misguided.

P.S. This isn’t the first time that Alan Reynolds has debunked Piketty.

P.P.S. These two pizzas tell you everything you need to know about how the left would define success.

P.P.P.S. And Margaret Thatcher exposed why their definition of success is absurd.

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Our leftist friends have decided that income inequality is a scourge that must be addressed.

That might be a noble goal if they were motivated by a desire to improve the lives of the less fortunate.

Based on their policy proposals, though, it appears that the main goal is to punish the so-called rich. And they’re so fixated on that objective, Margaret Thatcher pointed out, that they’re willing to make the poor worse off.

And what’s especially bizarre is that rich leftists are among the biggest cheerleaders for these policies. Heck, I’ve even debated some of these limousine liberals, as you can see here and here.

But maybe their feelings of self-loathing and guilt are justified. After all, it seems that statist policies are actually associated with higher degrees of income inequality.

Let’s see what Steve Moore and Rich Vedder discovered when they looked at evidence from the states. Here are excerpts from their column in the Wall Street Journal.

Our state-by-state analysis finds that the more liberal states whose policies are supposed to promote fairness have a bigger gap between higher and lower incomes than do states that have more conservative, pro-growth policies. …According to 2012 Census Bureau data (the latest available figures), the District of Columbia, New York, Connecticut, Mississippi and Louisiana have the highest measure of income inequality of all the states; Wyoming, Alaska, Utah, Hawaii and New Hampshire have the lowest Gini coefficients. The three places that are most unequal—Washington, D.C., New York and Connecticut—are dominated by liberal policies and politicians. Four of the five states with the lowest Gini coefficients—Wyoming, Alaska, Utah and New Hampshire—are generally red states.

Steve and Rich then look at some specific comparison and some specific issues.

Texas is often regarded as an unregulated Wild West of winner-take-all-capitalism, while California is held up as the model of progressive government. Yet Texas has a lower Gini coefficient (.477) and a lower poverty rate (20.5%) than California (Gini coefficient .482, poverty rate 25.8%). Do the 19 states with minimum wages above the $7.25 federal minimum have lower income inequality? Sorry, no. States with a super minimum wage like Connecticut ($8.70), California ($8), New York ($8) and Vermont ($8.73) have significantly wider gaps between rich and poor than those states that don’t. What about welfare benefits? …In general, the higher the benefit package, the higher the Gini coefficient. States with high income-tax rates aren’t any more equal than states with no income tax.

So what’s the bottom line?

The conclusion is nearly inescapable that liberal policy prescriptions—especially high income-tax rates and the lack of a right-to-work law—make states less prosperous because they chase away workers, businesses and capital. …When politicians get fixated on closing income gaps rather than creating an overall climate conducive to prosperity, middle- and lower-income groups suffer most and income inequality rises. …John F. Kennedy had it right that a rising tide lifts all boats. It would be better for low- and middle-income Americans if growth and not equality became the driving policy goal in the states and in Washington, D.C.

Speaking of rich, guilt-ridden leftists, Michael Moore is getting divorced and the fight with his soon-to-be ex is resulting in some revelations about the immense wealth of this anti-capitalist crusader.

Here are some eye-catching details from a story in the UK-based Daily Mail.

According to Celebrity Worth, Moore has $50m in assets. …the Torch Lake mansion…put a spotlight on his wealth and opened him up for ridicule because he has so often criticized the rich in his films. …The home, which was completed years ago, is believed to cost in the neighborhood of $2m. …The lake house isn’t their only home. They own a total of nine properties in Michigan and New York. Their Manhattan condo was created through ‘the combination of three separate units,’ according to The Smoking Gun. …Together Moore and Glynn own ‘multiple substantial residences and multiple companies,’ including Dog Eat Dog Films, the production company behind films Roger & Me and Bowling for Columbine.

Nine properties, including a lakefront mansion and a three-units-combined-into-one Manhattan condo?!?

Who knew bashing the rich was such a lucrative gig.

Geesh, I’m a defender of the top 1 percent and I only have a house in Virginia.

I’m obviously doing something wrong.

P.S. While rich leftists say they want higher taxes, they’ve been exposed on camera as complete hypocrites.

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In previous columns, I’ve explained why a wealth tax is a very bad idea. And I’ve also pontificated on why leftists are wrong to pursue policies of coerced equality.

So it goes without saying that I’m a big fan of a new Wall Street Journal column by John Steele Gordon.

He writes that the anti-wealth ideology animating the political elite is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how large fortunes are generated.

He starts by pointing out that many of today’s richest people earned their money as a result of the microprocessor, a technological development that has dramatically improved the lives of ordinary people.

The French economist Thomas Piketty, in his new book “Capital in the 21st Century,” calls for an 80% tax on incomes over $250,000 and a 2% annual tax on net worth in order to prevent an excessive concentration of wealth. That is a monumentally bad idea. The great growth of fortunes in recent decades is not a sinister development. Instead it is simply the inevitable result of an extraordinary technological innovation, the microprocessor… Seven of the 10 largest fortunes in America today were built on this technology, as have been countless smaller ones. …no one is poorer because Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, et al., are so much richer. These new fortunes came into existence only because the public wanted the products and services—and lower prices—that the microprocessor made possible.

He then points out that this is actually a consistent pattern through history.

New technologies make us better off, and also create riches for those who most effectively bring those new developments to consumers.

Whenever a new technology comes along that greatly reduces the cost of a fundamental input to the economy, or makes possible what had previously been impossible, there has always been a flowering of great new fortunes—often far larger than those that came before. …The full-rigged ship that Europeans developed in the 15th century, for instance, was capable of reaching the far corners of the globe. …The Dutch exploited the new trade so successfully that the historian Simon Schama entitled his 1987 book on this period of Dutch history “The Embarrassment of Riches.” …Before James Watt’s rotary steam engine, patented in 1781, only human and animal muscles, water mills and windmills could supply power. But with Watt’s engine it was suddenly possible to input vast amounts of very-low-cost energy into the economy. Combined with the factory system of production, the steam engine sparked the Industrial Revolution, causing growth—and thus wealth as well as job creation—to sharply accelerate. By the 1820s so many new fortunes were piling up that the English social critic John Sterling was writing, “Wealth! Wealth! Wealth! Praise to the God of the 19th century! The Golden Idol! The mighty Mammon!” In 1826 the young Benjamin Disraeli coined the word millionaire to denote the holders of these new industrial fortunes. …before the railroad, moving goods overland was extremely, and often prohibitively, expensive. The railroad made it cheap. Such fortunes as those of the railroad-owning Vanderbilts, Goulds and Harrimans became legendary for their size. …Many of the new fortunes in America’s Gilded Age in the late 19th century were based on petroleum, by then inexpensive and abundant thanks to Edwin Drake’s drilling technique. Steel, suddenly made cheap thanks to the Bessemer converter, could now have a thousand new uses. Oil and steel, taken together, made the automobile possible. That produced still more great fortunes, not only in car manufacturing, but also in rubber, glass, highway construction and such ancillary industries.

Gordon then concludes by warning against class-warfare tax policy, since it would discourage the risk-taking that necessarily accompanies big investments in new technology.

Any attempt to tax away new fortunes in the name of preventing inequality is certain to have adverse effects on further technology creation and niche exploitation by entrepreneurs—and harm job creation as a result. The reason is one of the laws of economics: Potential reward must equal the risk or the risk won’t be taken. And the risks in any new technology are very real in the highly competitive game that is capitalism. In 1903, 57 automobile companies opened for business in this country, hoping to exploit the new technology. Only the Ford Motor Co. survived the Darwinian struggle to succeed. As Henry Ford’s fortune grew to dazzling levels, some might have decried it, but they also should have rejoiced as he made the automobile affordable for everyman.

My only complaint about Gordon’s column is that he didn’t have the space to emphasize a related point.

All of the large fortunes that he discusses were not accumulated at the expense of those with less money.

In other words, the economy was not a fixed pie. Capitalism made everybody better off. Some just got richer faster than other people got richer.

P.S. I wrote the other day about the VA scandal and emphasized that the problem was not inadequate spending.

I want to revisit the issue because Professor Glenn Reynolds makes a very important point about greed in a column for USA Today.

People sometimes think that government or “nonprofit” operations will be run more honestly than for-profit businesses because the businesses operate on the basis of “greed.” But, in fact, greed is a human characteristic that is present in any organization made up of humans. It’s all about incentives. And, ironically, a for-profit medical system might actually offer employees less room for greed than a government system. That’s because VA patients were stuck with the VA. If wait times were long, they just had to wait, or do without care. In a free-market system, a provider whose wait times were too long would lose business, and even if the employees faked up the wait-time numbers, that loss of business would show up on the bottom line. That would lead top managers to act, or lose their jobs. In the VA system, however, the losses didn’t show up on the bottom line because, well, there isn’t one. Instead, the losses were diffused among the many patients who went without care — visible to them, but not to the people who ran the agency, who relied on the cooked-books numbers from their bonus-seeking underlings. …that’s the problem with socialism. The absence of a bottom line doesn’t reduce greed and self-dealing — it removes a constraint on greed and self-dealing.


Greed is always with us. The question is whether greed is channeled in productive ways. In a free market, greedy people can only become rich by providing the rest of us with valuable goods and services.

In statist systems, by contrast, greedy people manipulate coercive government policies in order to obtain unearned wealth.

And that choice has big consequences for the rest of us, as illustrated by this satirical image.

P.S. Here’s a cartoon from Robert Ariail that sums up how Washington will probably deal with the mess at the Veterans Administration.

Sort of reminds me of this Gary Varvel cartoon.

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There aren’t any nations with pure libertarian economic policy, but there are a handful of jurisdictions that deserve praise, either because they have comparatively low levels of statism or because they have made big strides in the right direction.

Hong Kong and Singapore are examples of the former, and Switzerland deserves honorable mention.

And if we look at nations that have moved in the right direction, then Chile is definitely a success story.

The free-market revolution in Chile is remarkable. If you look at the Economic Freedom of the World rankings, Chile was in last place in 1970 and third from the bottom in 1975. But then reforms began. It climbed to 60th place in 1980, 40th place in 1985, 28th place in 2000, and Chile now has one of the world’s freest economies, hovering around 10th place.

And the results are amazing. Now known as the Latin Tiger, Chile has become the richest nation in the region, thanks to a big increase in economic liberty. Many people know about that nation’s very successful system of personal retirement accounts (discussed here by Jose Pinera), but Chile’s economic renaissance is much deeper than private pensions.

The country has an admirable system of school choice, for instance, and 60 percent of students now attend private schools.

Most remarkable, the poverty rate has plummeted, showing that free markets and small government are the best way of helping the less fortunate.

But there’s no such thing as permanent success, and it appears that Chilean politicians may try to kill the geese that are laying the golden eggs.

Here are some excerpts from a Wall Street Journal report, starting with a description of the class-warfare tax plan proposed by the nation’s socialist leader.

Chile’s leftist government is proposing a controversial overhaul of its tax code that business leaders say threatens to reverse the gains that have made this country Latin America’s most prosperous nation. …The government says the tax reform will increase the tax haul by three percentage points of annual economic output, or by about $8.2 billion annually. The proposed overhaul includes an increase in the corporate tax rate to 25% from the current rate of 20% and the elimination of a popular tax exemption program that allows businesses that reinvest profits, known as the FUT. …Ms. Bachelet, a 62-year-old Socialist Party member, said Wednesday that the changes are required to fund a plan to improve the quality of the schools system.

The FUT system sounds like expensing, which is how the tax code should treat business investment, not a loophole.

In any event, we definitely know that the tax plan would significantly boost the tax burden.

And that has wealth creators worried.

The plan to raise the corporate tax rate and close an exemption that companies use to reinvest profits has stirred up an ideologically-charged debate at a time when economic growth has weakened to its slowest level in four years. …many of the company’s 450 business clients in Chile are reconsidering investment plans. “They are watching this with a lot of concern.” …business groups say they will try to pressure the government to rethink the tax overhaul. Juan Pablo Swett, the head of Chile’s association of small businesses, said that some 250,000 small-business owners could protest if the government doesn’t save the FUT. “Chile is going down the road of Latin American populism,” added Axel Kaiser, an economist and executive director at the Foundation for Progress, a conservative Chilean think tank.

The story notes that economic reform has been very positive for Chile.

This mineral-rich, long sliver of a country that hugs the Pacific Ocean has long been a laboratory for economic innovation. Starting in the mid-1970s, when much of Latin America had closed their economies from international trade, Chile went the other way, embarking on a program to liberalize trade, deregulate and even create a private pension system. Since 1990, successive governments, most of them left-leaning, oversaw business-friendly policies that turned it into the region’s most stable and wealthiest nation. …The robust economic growth, coined the “Chilean Miracle,” led to a decline in poverty to 15% in 2011 from almost 40% in 1990, according to the World Bank. During the same period, Chile’s gross domestic product per capita rose from less than $5,000 to more than $20,000, the highest in Latin America.

And since reform has produced such good results, that leaves us with two issues.

First, why do the politicians want to ruin a good thing? These people presumably are educated and well-traveled. They must realize how Chile has prospered relative to other nations in the region. So why tinker with success? Are they really so short-sighted that they’re willing to condemn their nation to slower growth just so they have the ability to buy votes with a temporary increase in tax revenue?

Second, why did voters elect these politicians? Don’t they realize that they’ve benefited from the pro-market reforms? Though I suspect the answer is that previous left-of-center governments haven’t done anything bad, while the recently ousted right-of-center government didn’t do anything good, so maybe voters didn’t realize that the new left-leaning government intended to make radical changes.

Regardless, it will be tragic if these reforms are imposed and Chile sinks back into economic stagnation.

The world in general – and Latin America in particular – already has plenty of basket case economies such as Cuba, Venezuela, and Argentina. The last thing we need is another statist economy.

I realize this may sound like whining, but it would make my job easier to have more examples of jurisdictions that can be role models for free markets and small government.

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