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Archive for May 4th, 2021

There are all sorts of long-running battles in the economics profession, perhaps most notably the never-ending dispute about Keynesian economics.

Another contentious issues is the degree to which society should accept less growth in order to achieve more equality, with Arthur Okun – author of Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff – being the most famous advocate for prioritizing equity.

I don’t agree with Okun, but I applaud him for honesty. Unlike many modern politicians, as well as most international bureaucracies (and even the occasional journalist), he didn’t pretend that big government was a free lunch.

Let’s take a closer look at this issue in today’s column.

We’ll start by perusing a working paper, published by Spain’s central bank, that explores the optimal tax rate for that nation. The author, Dario Serrano-Puente, concludes that society will be better off if tax rates are increased.

Many modern governments implement a redistributive fiscal policy, where personal income is taxed at an increasingly higher rate, while transfers tend to target the poorest households.In Spain there is an intense debate about…so-called “fiscal justice”, which is putting on the table a tax rate increase for the high-income earners… once the theoretical framework is defined, a bunch of potential progressivity reforms are assessed… Then a Benthamite social planner, who takes into account all households in the economy by putting the same weight on each of them, discerns the optimal progressivity reform. The findings suggest that aggregate social welfare is maximized when the level of progressivity of the Spanish personal income tax is increased to some extent. More precisely,in the optimally reformed scenario (setting the optimal level of progressivity), welfare gains are equivalent to an average increase of 3.08% of consumption.

I have a fundamental problem with the notion of government acting as a “Benthamite social planner,” but I don’t want to address that issue today.

Instead, I want to applaud Senor Serrano-Puente because he openly acknowledges that higher tax rates and more redistribution will lead to less growth.

Here’s some of what he wrote about that tradeoff.

For each reformed economy evaluated in the progressivity gridτ={0.00, …,0.50}, the main macroeconomic aggregates are calculated. …the evolution of these magnitudes on progressivity is depicted in Figure 4. Broadly speaking, it is clear that aggregate capital and output are decreasing in progressivity in a (almost) linear pathway, with the drop in capital being more pronounced than in output. …aggregate consumption and aggregate labor are also decreasing in progressivity.

Here’s a look at the aforementioned Figure 4, and it is easy to see that the economy suffers as progressivity increases.

Kudos, again, to the author for acknowledging the tradeoff between equity and efficiency. But applauding the author for honesty is not the same as applauding the author’s judgement.

Simply stated, he is trying to justify a policy that will hurt poor people in the long run. That’s because even small differences in growth can have a big effect over time.

Let’s illustrate how this works with a chart showing the life-time earnings of a hypothetical low-income Spaniard.

  • The orange line shows how much money the workers gets if he starts with an extra 3.08 percent of income thanks to higher taxes and additional redistribution, but the economy grows 2.0 percent per year.
  • The blue line shows income for the same worker, which starts at a lower level because tax rates have not been increased to fund additional redistribution, but the economy grows 2.2 percent per year..

As you can see, that low-income worker is a net beneficiary of bigger government for about 10 years. But as time goes on, the worker would be far better off with smaller government and faster growth.

Different assumptions will lead to different results, of course. My goal is simply to help readers understand two things.

P.S. To illustrate the high cost of big government, let’s shift from hypothetical examples to real-world data. Most relevant, OECD data shows that the average low-income person in the United States is better off than the average middle-class person in Spain.

P.P.S. The study cited above considers what happens if Spanish politicians raise taxes on the rich. That would be a mistake, as illustrated by the chart, but let’s not forget that Spanish politicians also over-tax low-income people.

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