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Archive for the ‘Welfare State’ Category

I periodically explain that a European-sized welfare state can only be financed by huge taxes on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers.

Simply stated, there aren’t enough rich people to prop up big government. Moreover, at the risk of mixing my animal metaphors, those golden geese also have a tendency to fly away if they’re being treated like fatted calves.

I have some additional evidence to share on this issue, thanks to a new report from the Tax Foundation. The research specifically looks at the tax burden on the average worker in developed nations

The tax burden on labor is referred to as a “tax wedge,” which simply refers to the difference between an employer’s cost of an employee and the employee’s net disposable income. …The OECD calculates the tax burden by adding together the income tax payment, employee-side payroll tax payment, and employer-side payroll tax payment of a worker earning the average wage in a country. …Although payroll taxes are typically split between workers and their employers, economists generally agree that both sides of the payroll tax ultimately fall on workers.

The bad news for workers (and the good news for politicians) is that average workers in the advanced world loses more than one-third of their income to government.

In some cases, such as the unfortunate Spanish household I wrote about back in February, the government steals two-thirds of a worker’s income.

So which country is best for workers and which is worst?

Here’s a look at a map showing the tax burden for selected European nations.

Suffice to say, it’s not good to be dark red.

But that map doesn’t provide a complete answer.

To really determine the best and worst countries, the Tax Foundation made an important correction to the OECD data by including the burden of the value-added tax. Here’s why it matters.

The tax burden on labor is broader than personal income taxes and payroll taxes. In many countries individuals also pay a value-added tax (VAT) on their consumption. Because a VAT diminishes the purchasing power of individual earnings, a more complete picture of the tax burden should include the VAT. Although the United States does not have a VAT, state sales taxes also work to diminish the purchasing power of earnings. Accounting for VAT rates and bases in OECD countries increased the tax burden on labor by 5 percentage-points on average in 2018.

And with that important fix, we can confidently state that the worst country for ordinary workers is Belgium, followed by Germany, Austria, France, and Italy.

The best country, assuming we’re limiting the conversation to rich countries, is Switzerland, followed by New Zealand, South Korea, Israel, and the United States.

By the way, this report just looks at the tax burden on average workers. We would also need estimates of the tax burden on things such as investment, business, and entrepreneurship to judge the overall merit (or lack thereof) of various tax regimes.

Let’s close by looking at the nations that have moved the most in the right direction and wrong direction this century.

Congratulations to Hungary, Israel, and Sweden.

I’m not surprised to see Mexico galloping in the wrong direction, though I’m disappointed that South Korea and Iceland are also deteriorating.

P.S. The bottom line is that global evidence confirms that ordinary people will be the ones paying the tab if Crazy Bernie and AOC succeed in expanding the burden of government spending in America. Though they’re not honest enough to admit it.

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I’m a big fan of many of the economic reforms that have been implemented in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

All three of the Baltic nations rank highly according to Economic Freedom of the World. Estonia and Lithuania are tied for #13, and Latvia isn’t far behind at #23.

Rather impressive for nations that suffered decades of communist enslavement.

But this doesn’t mean I’m optimistic for the future of these countries.

Simply stated, they need a lot more reform to prepare themselves for demographic decline.

And demographic decline is a huge issue, in large part because young people are moving away. Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg report.

According to the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, nine of the world’s countries most at risk of losing citizens over the next few decades are former East bloc nations. Porous borders and greater opportunity in the west have lured people away. …The trend is hitting especially hard in the Baltics. Latvia, with a current population of 1.96 million, has lost about 25 percent of its residents since throwing off Soviet control in 1991. The U.N. predicts that by 2050, it will have lost an additional 22 percent of its current population…and by 2100, 41 percent. In Estonia, with a population of 1.32 million, the U.N. foresees a 13 percent decline by 2050 and a 32 percent drop by 2100. And in Lithuania, the current population of 2.87 million is expected to drop by 17 percent by 2050. By 2100, it will have lost 34 percent. …Latvian demographer Mihails Hazans said that, as of 2014, one in three ethnic Latvians age 25 to 34 — and a quarter of all Latvians with higher education — lived abroad.

Part of the issue is also fertility.

Here’s a chart from the World Bank showing that all three Baltic nations are way below the replacement rate.

The combination of these two factors helps to explain this map.

As you can see, the Baltics don’t quite face the same challenges as Moldova.

But that’s the only silver lining in these grim numbers.

By the way, people should be free to emigrate.

And women should be free to choose how many children to have.

But when a country also has a welfare state and – over time – there are more and more old people and fewer and fewer young taxpayers, that’s a recipe for some sort of Greek-style fiscal crisis.

Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem.

The Baltic nations need to copy Hong Kong. Fertility rates are even lower there, but the jurisdiction doesn’t face a big long-run fiscal challenge since people mostly rely on private savings rather than tax-and-transfer welfare states.

P.S. One of the reasons I like the Baltic nations is that they cut spending (actual spending cuts, not fake DC-style reductions in planned increases) when they were hit by the global financial crisis last decade.

P.P.S. Even better, Paul Krugman wound up beclowning himself by trying to blame Estonia’s 2008 recession on spending cuts that occurred in 2009.

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I’ve repeatedly dealt with the argument over Denmark’s supposed socialism.

My core argument is that Denmark is very bad on fiscal policy, but very laissez-faire on other issues such as regulation. The net effect is that Danes have about the same amount of economic liberty as Americans.

The bottom line is that Denmark isn’t socialist. At least not if we use the technical definition. There’s plenty of bad policy, but no government ownership, no central planning, and no price controls.

Which is basically the message in this Prager University video by Otto Brøns-Petersen from the CEPOS think tank in Denmark.

This is a great video.

Basically everything you need to know about Danish economic policy.

To augment Otto’s video, let’s review a report from some of his CEPOS colleagues.

The entire report is worth reading, but I want to focus on one excerpt and some key visuals.

First, notice that Denmark and the United States have similar levels of economic freedom.

Since I’m a public finance economist, I was very interested in some observations in the report about fiscal policy.

This excerpt notes that Denmark has a much more onerous tax burden, and it points out that the value-added tax is the main reason for the gap.

…the tax burden (taxes to GDP) is the second-highest in the OECD and 70 percent higher than in the US (46 vs. 27 per cent of GDP). …The biggest difference between the Danish and the American tax systems is that consumption taxes are much higher in Denmark. VAT is 25 per cent in Denmark while the average sales tax is 6 per cent in the US. …Including the effect of consumption taxes, the top marginal tax rate on labor income is 67 per cent in Denmark. For low and middle-income workers, it is 55 per cent. This is significantly higher than in the USA. It’s important to include consumption taxes when you calculate the effective marginal tax rate. High consumption taxes means that you can buy fewer goods for one extra working hour.

My first takeaway is that this explains why blocking the VAT is absolutely necessary for advocates of limited government in the United States.

And the second takeaway is that big government means big burdens on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers, which is what we seen in this next chart.

Last but not least, here are two charts comparing taxes and labor supply in the United States and Denmark.

In the tax chart, you can see that the two countries were very similar from the 1930s to the 1960s. But then the tax burden in Denmark got much worse (coinciding with the imposition of the VAT).

Now take a look at hours worked in both nations.

We were very similar back in 1970. But as the Danish tax burden grew, people responded by working less and less.

In other words, more evidence to support the core insight of supply-side economics. The more you tax of something, the less you get of it.

The Philoso-raptor surely would agree.

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When I think about social welfare spending, I mostly worry about recipients getting trapped in dependency.

But I also feel sorry for taxpayers, who are bearing ever-higher costs to finance redistribution programs.

Today’s column won’t focus on those issues. Instead, we’re going to utilize new OECD data to compare the size of the welfare states in developed nations.

We’ll start with the big picture. Here it total redistribution spending, measured as a share of economic output, for selected countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Nobody will be surprised, I assume, to see that France, Finland, Belgium, Denmark, and Italy have the biggest welfare states.

The United States is in the middle of the pack. American taxpayers might be surprised to learn, though, that they finance a bigger welfare state than the ones that exist in Canada, Iceland, and the Netherlands.

The overall numbers are important, but it’s also educational to consider the various components.

And the largest chunk of social spending in most nations is for their old-age programs. The biggest burdens are found in Greece, Italy, France, Portugal, and Austria. The United States, once again, is in the middle of the pack.

By the way, keep in mind that there are many factors that determine why some nations spend more than others.

  • How generous are benefits? – This is often measured as the “replacement rate,” which compares retirement benefits to income during working years.
  • When can people retire? – Some countries allow people, or some classes of people, to get benefits while relatively young. Others are more stringent.
  • Does a country have an aging population? – Demographic changes already are beginning to have a large effect on the finances of some systems.
  • Is there a private savings system? – Nations such as Switzerland, Australia, Chile, and the Netherlands have significant private retirement savings.

Now let’s look at government spending on health.

Here’s the area where the United States is more extravagant than almost every other nation. Only France spends more money.

Actually, since per-capita GDP is significantly larger in the United States than in France, American taxpayers spend more on a per-person basis.

Some people will observe, with great justification, that the data for the United States may be a measure of the inefficiency of the American system rather than taxpayer generosity. This is a topic for another day.

Last but not least, let’s look at traditional welfare. In other words, cash assistance to the working-age population.

The fiscal burden of this spending is highest in Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Luxembourg. The United States, meanwhile, is comparatively frugal.

P.S. Here are a couple of caveats for number crunchers and policy wonks.

First, there are methodological challenges when comparing OECD nations. Eastern European nations tend to be significantly less prosperous than Western European nations, thanks to decades of communist enslavement. So looking at this data does not really allow for apples-to-apples comparisons. Moreover, there are a handful of developing nations that belong to the OECD, such as Mexico and Turkey, so comparison are effectively meaningless. And Chile is on the cusp of becoming a fully developed nation so it’s in its own category.

Second, as I briefly mentioned above, nations have different levels of per-capita GDP. If we look at the last chart, Austria and Spain spend a similar share of GDP on welfare, but since Austria is a richer nation, its taxpayers actually finance a lot more per-capita welfare spending. The same is true if you compare Canada and Estonia, Sweden and Slovenia, and Germany and Greece.

P.P.S. There was virtually no welfare state in OECD nations prior to the 1930s and very small welfare states until the 1960s. For what it’s worth, the huge reduction in poverty in those nations occurred before the welfare state.

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If nothing else, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gives me a lot to write about…and to laugh about.

I recently pontificated about her crazy idea to impose a top tax rate of 70 percent, which would reverse the very successful experiment we had in the 1980s (and presumably have a reverse effect on revenue as well).

Today, let’s look at the spending side of the fiscal equation.

AOC, as she is known, wants a dramatic increase in the burden of federal spending for her so-called “green new deal.”

Let’s examine the implications.

We’ll start with a supporter. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times has a giant carbon footprint compared to the average person, but that naturally doesn’t stop him from endorsing policies that would put AOC’s onerous burdens on the less fortunate.

Barack Obama picked up the theme and made a Green New Deal part of his 2008 platform, but the idea just never took off. So I’m excited that the new Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others have put forward their own takes on a Green New Deal… The goal is a ‘detailed national, industrial, economic mobilization plan’ to rapidly transition the country away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy, such as a solar, wind, and electric cars.” The Green New Deal that Ocasio-Cortez has laid out aspires to power the U.S. economy with 100 percent renewable energy within 12 years and calls for “a job guarantee program to assure a living wage job to every person who wants one,” “basic income programs” and “universal health care,” financed, at least in part, by higher taxes on the wealthy. …it is time for the green movement to think big and make big demands…a portion of every dollar raised by a carbon tax in a Green New Deal would be invested in two new community colleges and high-speed broadband in rural areas of every state.

Now let’s look at the implications of such policies.

But before looking at fiscal and economic considerations, let’s briefly detour to ideology.

Jonah Goldberg of National Review has some fun examining the philosophical forerunners of Ocasio-Cortez’s plan.

…the Green New Deal…is a triumph of recycling. Not of plastic bags or soda cans, but of ideas. Specifically, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and the impulses behind it. To her credit, Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) is fairly honest about her ideological recycling. …the New Deal itself was largely about war mobilization — without war. Roosevelt campaigned for president promising to adapt Woodrow Wilson’s wartime industrial policies to fight the Great Depression. …Nearly the entire structure of the New Deal was copied from Wilson’s “war socialism.” The National Recovery Administration was modeled on the War Industries Board. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation was an update of Wilson’s War Finance Corporation. …breaking discipline was a punishable offense, which is why a tailor, Jacob Maged, was sentenced to 30 days in jail for charging too little to press a suit. …American liberalism has been recycling the same basic idea: The country needs to be unified and organized as if we are at war… The attraction stems from what John Dewey called “the social possibilities of war” — the ability to reorganize and unify society according to the schemes of planners and experts.

Gee, another New Deal. What could possibly go wrong?

Now let’s contemplate the practical implications.

We’ll start with Warren Henry’s article in the Federalist.

…the darling of democratic socialism proposed eliminating carbon emissions within 12 years. …The “Frequently Asked Questions” section accompanying her draft resolution claims it could be funded in the “same ways that we paid for the 2008 bank bailout and extended quantitative easing programs, the same ways we paid for World War II and many other wars. The Federal Reserve can extend credit to power these projects and investments, new public banks can be created (as in WWII) to extend credit and a combination of various taxation tools (including taxes on carbon and other emissions and progressive wealth taxes) can be employed.” …Ocasio-Cortez now falls back on the comforting myth that everything is affordable by soaking the rich with higher income taxes. …Ocasio-Cortez half-concedes her plan is a fantasy… For an idea of how detached Ocasio-Cortez is from reality, consider that we get only 17 percent of our energy from renewables. …even if the golden geese of capitalism were to continue laying eggs in Ocasio-Cortez’s command-and-control economy, there will not be enough to make her statist omelet. Even if Ocasio-Cortez’s fever dream were technologically feasible, the burden of funding it would land on the middle class as well as the uber-wealthy. …This is not the first time Ocasio-Cortez has tried to pass off a fairy tale as a white paper. She recently claimed the $32 trillion cost of a Medicare-for-all plan could be funded by curbing fraud at the Pentagon. Not even PolitiFact could make that math work, given that our nation has not spent $32 trillion on defense since its founding.

In an article for FEE, Jarrett Stepman looks at the economics of AOC’s plan.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the avowed “democratic socialist” went with the predictable “tax the rich” formula in order to pay for a massive government program to combat climate change. …such a scheme would mean that her constituents in New York City would pay a max income tax rate of 82.6 percent… Perhaps New Yorkers deserve what they voted for, but does the country? …the tax hikes on the rich would be one of the least radical parts of the agenda. …moving the economy away from fossil fuels to 100 percent renewable energy will come “at a cost of about $5.2 trillion over 20 years.” …this deal would instead rely on the ruthless bludgeoning of private industry and citizens through the levers of the state. …the plan calls for direct government intervention to be its “prime driver.” …The Green New Deal doesn’t just include environmentalist proposals… Among the liberal wish list items included, the Green New Deal contains a proposal for universal health care and a basic minimum income program to make up for all the jobs lost…this will all come with an immense cost. …How do Green New Deal proponents propose to pay for this extreme growth in government? …by massively hiking taxes and then borrowing and ultimately printing money. Then it would use public banks run by unaccountable bureaucrats to carry the whole thing out. …an American version of a Soviet-style five-year plan focused on command-and-control economic solutions that have proven to fail the world over. …The agony of a collapsing Venezuela…is a stark example of how badly this can end.

Milton Ezrati’s column in the City Journal further debunks AOC’s numbers.

…specific goals…include, among other things, expanding renewable-energy sources until they provide 100 percent of the nation’s power…upgrading every residence and industrial building in the U.S. for energy efficiency…eliminating greenhouse-gas emissions for industry and agriculture; funding “massive” investments… Ocasio-Cortez adds a long list of social objectives: providing training and education for the energy transition, including “job guarantees at a living wage for everyone who wants one”; …mitigating racial, regional, and gender-based inequalities; developing universal health-care and income-support programs… there were some 136 million housing units in the United States. Upgrading each unit to high standards of energy efficiency would cost, conservatively, at least $10,000 per home, adding up to a total cost of $1.3 trillion. Doing the same for industrial structures would easily exceed that amount. The single-payer health-care part would cost another $3 trillion or more, annually. Stabilizing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would add another $1 trillion to $2 trillion to the price tag—and all these still only account for three items on AOC’s list. …she would rely on debt, “printing money,” and government willingness to take an equity stake in some of the enterprises involved.

The bottom line is Ocasio-Cortez wants to dramatically expand the size and scope of government.

Some of her ideas would involve big increases in red tape, especially for the green parts of the Green New Deal (thus underscoring why it is rather naive for anyone to think the left would accept less regulation in exchange for a carbon tax).

But since I’m a fiscal policy person, I’m naturally concerned about what her grandiose plan would mean for the tax and spending burden.

Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute has used public sources to estimate the price tag. Here’s the new spending that AOC and her fellow travelers want to impose on the economy.

And below we have a menu of potential tax increases.

There are two things to realize.

  • First, even if every single one of the tax increases is adopted, it doesn’t come close to paying for AOC’s wish list for new spending.
  • Second, the big revenue sources (payroll taxes, VAT, income tax) are largely taxes on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers.

In other words, politicians talk big about screwing the rich, but the rest of us will be picking up the tab.

By the way, I can’t resist commenting on this second table. I realize Brian is merely following the tradition of budget scorekeepers at the JCT and CBO, but new revenues should not be categorized as “savings.” I would go with “grabbings” or “takings” instead.

Brian’s rhetorical sin doesn’t qualify him for the Bob Dole Award or the Charlie Brown Award, but surely there should be some consequences. Maybe we’ll create a Libertarian Re-education Camp and miscreants will be forced to listen to lectures from Dork 1, Dork 2, and Dork 3?

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Bernie Sanders is yesterday’s news.

Yes, he’s still lovable ol’ Crazy Bernie, but he’s now being overshadowed by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another out-of-the-closet socialist who somehow thinks America should be more like Greece or Venezuela.

Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute opines in National Review about AOC’s proposed tax hike on the rich. He starts with a very appropriate economic observation.

A 70 percent tax bracket would raise very little (if any) revenue, while damaging the economy and sending income and jobs overseas.

He then points out that we should look at both sides of the fiscal ledger.

And the spending side of the left’s ledger is very crowded and very heavy.

…when assessing the needed tax revenues, a green-energy initiative costing $7–$10 trillion over the decade should be examined in the context of $42 trillion in additional Democratic-socialist proposals that include single-payer health care ($32 trillion), a federal jobs guarantee ($6.8 trillion), student-loan forgiveness ($1.4 trillion), free public college ($800 billion), infrastructure ($1 trillion), family leave ($270 billion), and Social Security expansion ($188 billion). …These spending promises are so stratospheric as to be incomprehensible — except to the far Left, which clings to the myth that simply taxing millionaires can finance a level of socialism that would make the Swedes start a tea-party movement.

Here’s the key part of Brian’s column.

He points out that there’s no way to finance the agenda of Democratic Socialists with class-warfare taxes. Even if the AOC tax plan is dramatically expanded.

…a 100 percent tax rate on all income over $1 million…would raise 3.8 percent of GDP — not even enough to balance the current budget, much less finance a Green New Deal. And even that figure implausibly assumes that people continue working and investing. Slightly more realistically, doubling the top 35 percent and 37 percent tax brackets, to 70 percent and 74 percent for singles earning more than $200,000 and couples earning at least $400,000, would raise roughly 1.6 percent of GDP. That figure also ignores all revenues lost to the economic effects of 85 percent marginal tax rates (when including state and payroll taxes) as well as tax avoidance and evasion. …limiting the 70 percent tax bracket to incomes over $10 million…would raise only 0.25 percent of GDP — about $50 billion annually. …$50 billion is surely too high of an estimate, because the kind of people with incomes over $10 million also have teams of accountants and tax lawyers finding every conceivable tax loophole and overseas income shift.

Everything we know about the real-world impact of tax policy tells us that these soak-the-rich taxes won’t raise much – if any – revenue for the simple reason that upper-income taxpayers will alter the timing, level, and composition of their income.

But, as Brian noted, these taxes wouldn’t come close to financing the leftist wish list even if one makes absurd assumptions that behavior doesn’t change and the economy is unaffected.

So how do European nations finance their large welfare states?

Europe finances its generous welfare states through steep value-added taxes that hit the entire population. …Increasing federal spending by 21 percent of GDP to fund Democratic socialism — even after slashing defense — would require either a 55 percent payroll tax increase, or 115 percent value-added tax, according to CBO data. Acknowledging this brutal middle-class burden would immediately end any public flirtation with “free-lunch socialism.”

This is the most important takeaway from the column.

And it’s something that I’ve noted as well. On more than one occasion.

If you want European-type handouts, you better be prepared to cough up a lot of money.

  • Onerous value-added taxes.
  • Punitive payroll taxes.
  • And income taxes that impose high rates on modest incomes.

Simply stated, there is no way to finance a European-sized welfare state without pillaging middle-class and lower-income taxpayers.

Which helps to explain why European living standards are significantly below American levels.

By the way, there one final point from Brian’s column that is worth sharing.

He explains that high tax rates in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s didn’t generate much revenue. Even from the rich.

A common liberal retort is that the economy survived 91 percent income-tax rates under President Eisenhower and 70 percent tax rates through the 1970s. That does not mean those policies raised much revenue. Tax exclusions and high income thresholds shielded nearly everyone from these tax rates — to the degree that the richest 1 percent of earners paid lower effective income-tax rates in the 1950s than today. In 1960, only eight taxpayers paid the 91 percent rate. Overall, today’s 8.2 percent of GDP in federal income-tax revenues exceeds that of the 1950s (7.2 percent), 1960s (7.6 percent), and 1970s (7.9 percent). Those earlier decades were not a tax-the-rich utopia.

Amen.

I made similar points back in 2017.

The bottom line is that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s economic agenda cannot be justified when looking at economic data, fiscal data, and historical data.

But we can say with great confidence that ordinary people ultimately will pay the heaviest price if her proposals get enacted since her class-warfare tax hikes will be a precursor for huge tax increases on the rest of us.

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There was a book last decade by Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, that asked why lower-income voters in the state didn’t vote for greater levels of redistribution.

The author claimed these voters were sidetracked by cultural issues, which may very well be part of the story. I like to think that these Kansans also were motivated by ethics and that they realized it would be wrong to use government coercion to take money from other people.

And maybe, unlike the folks at the IMF, they were not motivated by envy and they realized that high taxes and more redistribution would make them worse off over time because of the negative impact on overall prosperity.

Well, it appears that the folks in Kansas aren’t that different from people in India, Morocco, Nigeria, Mexico, and South Africa. At least that’s the takeaway from some new research that Christopher Hoy wrote about for the World Bank. Here’s the issue he investigated.

Social commentators and researchers struggle to explain why, despite growing inequality in many countries around the world,  there is often relatively limited support among poorer people for policies where they are set to benefit (such as increases in cash transfers or in the minimum wage). …Conventional theories of preferences for redistribution, such as the Meltzer-Richard Hypothesis, imply that if poor people were made aware they were relatively poorer than most other people in their country, they would become more supportive of redistribution. Yet there is little empirical evidence that evaluates this prediction. …empirical evidence is needed to understand how poorer people’s misperceptions of their relative position in the national income distribution effects their support for redistribution.

Here’s the methodology he used.

I conducted the first cross country survey experiment on preferences for redistribution in the developing world… The experiment involved over 16,000 respondents in five developing countries that make up almost 25% of the global population (India, Nigeria, Mexico, South Africa and Morocco). …To test whether informing poor people of their relative position in the national income distribution makes them more supportive of redistribution, I randomly allocate half of the respondents in each country to be told which quintile their household belongs to in the national income distribution (based upon their reported household income and the number of household members). …After the treatment they were asked if they thought the gap between the rich and poor was too large and whether the government was responsible for closing this gap.

And here are some of the results.

People tend to think they are in the middle of the income distribution, regardless of whether they are rich or poor. …poor people who perceived themselves to be in the bottom two quintiles of the distribution were between 15 to 28 percentage points more likely to prefer lower levels of inequality than poor people who perceived themselves to be in the top two quintiles. …Surprisingly, telling poor people that they are poorer than they thought makes them less concerned about the gap between the rich and poor in their country…there was no effect from the treatment on these people’s support for the government to close the gap between the rich and poor.

Here’s a chart showing how people became less sympathetic to government-coerced redistribution after learning more about their own economic status.

The author speculates on possible reasons for these results.

A plausible channel that is causing this effect is people using their own living standard as a ‘benchmark’ for what they consider acceptable for others. …people…realise two points. Firstly, there are fewer people in their country with a living standard they considered to be relatively poor than they had thought. Secondly, what they had considered to be an ‘average’ living standard (their own standard of living) is actually relatively poor compared to other people in their country. I show how both of these points would lead people to respond by being less likely to be concerned about the gap between the rich and poor in their country. …there are opposing channels through which poorer people’s preferences for redistribution respond to information about their relative position. On the one hand, poorer people may be more supportive if they are set to benefit from redistribution. However, on the other hand they may be less supportive if they are less concerned about the absolute living standard of people who are relatively poor.

These are all plausible answers.

Though I have the same questions about this research as I did about Frank’s book. Do people in these five developing nations have any level of moral aversion to redistribution and/or do they understand (at least implicitly) that a tax-and-redistribute model is a recipe for national economic decline?

Perhaps a more practical way of looking at the issue is to ask whether lower-income people care most about economic growth or economic inequality.

Many of the professional left, including the ideologues at the IMF, are fixated on the latter and they’re willing to hurt the poor if the rich suffer even greater harm (in other words, Margaret Thatcher was right about their motives).

By contrast, I strongly suspect the average lower-income person is far more interested in more prosperity for their family and far less concerned about the prosperity of the rich family on the other side of town. They presumably are unaware of the powerful Chinese data on poverty reduction and inequality, but they instinctively understand that a rising tide lifts all boats.

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