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Posts Tagged ‘Redistribution’

Three years ago, I shared a cartoon that succinctly summarized the problem with socialism and the welfare state.

It’s the same lesson that we also get from Thomas Sowell, which is that redistribution over time creates an ever-larger number of dependents financed by ever-higher taxes on workers.

Or, as this Wizard-of-Id parody and this Little-Red-Hen parody make clear, why work hard if you can get things for free?

Now I have a different way of illustrating the problem with socialism. Here’s a very clever tweet from Young Americans Against Socialism.

Very clever and amusing.

I will add this short video to my collection of socialism humor, but it actually makes a very serious point.

Socialists and other redistributionists want equality of outcomes, but they don’t think about the unintended consequences of such an approach.

Some people will be lured into sloth and dependency, for instance, while others – particularly those with greater ability and/or greater work ethic – will choose to be less productive (especially because they also get hit with higher tax burdens to finance all the handouts).

Bastiat wrote that the failure to consider the “unseen” was the defining quality of a bad economist.

And since we’re on that topic, here’s an example of Crazy Bernie failing to appreciate that actions have unintended consequences.

A perfect metaphor for what would happen to the economy if some of his policies were imposed on the economy.

Except Bernie would still have his comfortable life. It’s the rest of us who would suffer.

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By offering all sorts of freebies to various constituencies, Bernie Sanders has positioned himself as the true-believing socialist in the Democratic race (even though he’s actually a member of the “top-1 percent”).

But he has plenty of competition. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren are strong competitors in the free-lunch Olympics, and most of the rest of the candidates are saying “me, too” as well.

Assuming these candidates get a warm reception, this is a worrisome development.

Part of America’s superior societal capital is (or has been) our immunity to the free-lunch message.

If that’s changing, it will be very hard to be optimistic about the future.

Antony Davies of Duquesne University and James Harrigan of the University of Arizona wrote for FEE about the dangerous – and seductive – ideology of something-for-nothing.

…politicians are tripping over each other to offer voters more “free” things, including everything from health care and college to a guaranteed basic income. But voters should be fostering a healthy sense of skepticism. If there is one eternal and immutable fact in economics, it is that nothing is free. Nothing. …as voters, our healthy skepticism seems to go right out the window. When politicians promise all sorts of “free” things, it doesn’t occur to many of us that those things can’t possibly be free. It doesn’t occur to us that, like businesses seeking our dollars, politicians will tell us whatever it takes to get hold of our votes. …Don’t be so gullible…when you hear Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders tell you how health care and higher education will be free for everyone, remember that…health care and higher education cannot and will never be free.

Davies and Harrigan are economically right. Indeed, they are 100 percent right.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

But there are lunches that financed by others. And that’s why I’m worried about support for Sanders and other hard-left Democrats.

I don’t want America to turn into Europe, with people thinking they have a “right” to a wide array of goodies, paid for by someone else.

So what’s the alternative to the something-for-nothing ideology of the modern left?

Bobby Jindal, the former Louisiana governor, recently opined on this topic in the Wall Street Journal.

Progressives are changing the Democratic Party’s focus…to subsidizing everything for everybody. …Democrats now promise free college, free health care and more—for everyone. Republicans can’t outspend Democrats, but they can make the case for freedom and against the idea that everything is “free”… The Republican ideal is…an aspirational society. …becoming dependent on government is the American nightmare. …Republicans have to do more than mock the Green New Deal…if they want to persuade young voters of the case for limited government and personal freedom. …“free” means more government control at the expense of consumer autonomy. When progressives promise government will pay for health care and college, they are really saying government will run medicine and higher education. …“Free” means less efficiency, more expense and lower quality. …“Free” means robbing from America’s children. …Despite proposed marginal rates as high as 70% or even 90%, none of the tax plans Democrats have put forward would raise nearly enough revenue to pay for the promised spending. …Republicans can’t outbid Santa Claus. Americans are willing to work hard and sacrifice for a better life but need to know how pro-growth policies benefit them. Voters may be tempted by progressives’ crazy plans… They will embrace effective market-based solutions that promote freedom if Republicans offer them.

Gov. Jindal has a great message about trumpeting growth as an alternative to redistribution.

Though I’m not brimming with confidence that Republicans are overly sincere when they use this type of rhetoric.

And some of them, like Trump, don’t even bother with pretending that they want to curtail dependency and shrink the social welfare state.

And that does not bode well for America’s future.

P.S. As is so often the case on issues of policy and ethics, Professor Walter Williams is a great source of wisdom.

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Even though I (correctly) doubted the Trump Administration’s sincerity, I applauded proposed reductions in foreign aid back in 2017.

I very much want to reduce poverty in poor nations, of course, but the evidence is very strong that government handouts don’t do a very good job.

Moreover, we also have lots of data showing poor nations can enjoy dramatic improvements in living standards so long as they adopt good policy.

Hong Kong, Singapore, Chile, and Botswana are very good examples.

Yet some people haven’t learned this lesson. Consider the current debate over Trump’s threat to end aid to Central America if illegal immigration isn’t reduced.

A column in Fortune makes the case that handouts to Central America are necessary to reduce human smuggling.

President Donald Trump ordered the State Department to cut funding for Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador this weekend in retaliation for the recent influx of migrants from these nations, reversing a longstanding policy that says aid helps abate immigration. …According to Liz Schrayer, president and CEO of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition—a nonprofit coalition of businesses and NGOs dedicated to American development and diplomacy—pulling back aid “exasperates the exact root causes that are creating the migration numbers’ increase.” …“It will only result in more children and families being forced to make the dangerous journey north to the U.S.-Mexico border,” said the five Democratic lawmakers in a statement.

A piece in the New York Times makes the same argument.

The Trump administration’s decision to cut off aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to punish their governments for failing to curb migration is a rash response to a real policy dilemma. …it will exacerbate migration from the region without twisting Central American politicians’ arms. …The decision to cut off aid is bound to drive up migration numbers.

Ironically, the author admits that aid is ineffective.

…we shouldn’t pretend that the aid itself was doing much good… it is mostly distributed inefficiently in large blocks by foreign contractors.

Though he seems to share the naive (and presumably self-interested) arguments of international bureaucrats about the potential efficacy of aid.

Central American governments and elites have gotten away with abdicating their fiduciary, social and legal responsibilities to their citizens. They have failed to collect tax revenue and to invest in social programs and job creation that alleviate the plight of their poor.

Even some small-government conservatives seem to think that more aid would make recipient nations more prosperous and thus reduce illegal immigration.

What President Trump is doing now — cutting aid — is wrong. …As former White House Chief of Staff and SOUTHCOM Commander, General John Kelly, has noted, “If we can improve the conditions, the lot in life of Hondurans, Guatemalans, Central Americans, we can do an awful lot to protect the southwest border.” …We risk undermining our longterm national interests by cutting foreign aid. We should, instead, spend it wisely in those countries to ensure stable governments that view us as allies and work with them to root out crime, corruption, and cartels. The present policy to cut foreign aid cuts off our national nose to spite our face.

This is not an impossible prescription.

But it’s also the triumph of hope over experience.

In the real world, we have mountains of evidence that foreign aid weakens recipient economies by subsidizing corruption and larger burdens of government.

Let’s look at some analysis on this issue.

In a piece published by CapX, Matt Warner recommends less redistribution rather than more.

…the poor know how to get themselves out of poverty. They just need more opportunity to do it. The question we must ask ourselves is: to what degree are our current development aid strategies aligned with this insight? …If the intervention itself is part of the problem, what can outsiders really do to help? Today there are at least 481 research and advocacy organisations in 92 countries pushing reform agendas to provide more economic opportunity and prosperity for all. The “Doing Business” report provides a blueprint for change. Local reform organisations, supported by private philanthropy, provide the leadership to achieve it and the world’s poor will show us their own paths to prosperity if we will all just learn to get out of their way.

Writing for Barron’s, Paul Theroux notes that Africa regressed when it was showered with aid.

Africa receives roughly $50 billion in aid annually from foreign governments, and perhaps $13 billion more from private philanthropic institutions… Africa is much worse off than when I first went there 50 years ago to teach English: poorer, sicker, less educated, and more badly governed. It seems that much of the aid has made things worse. …Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo calls aid a “debilitating drug,” arguing that “real per-capita income [in Africa] today is lower than it was in the 1970s, and more than 50% of the population — over 350 million people — live on less than a dollar a day, a figure that has nearly doubled in two decades.” The Kenyan economist James Shikwati takes this same line on aid, famously telling the German magazine Der Spiegel, “For God’s sake, please stop.”

Brad Lips of the Atlas Network explains why aid often is counterproductive.

The international community has donated more than $1.8 trillion to poor countries since 2000 – but this development aid hasn’t lifted many people out of poverty. Arguably, it has made some recipient nations poorer. …the aid has bred corruption, fostered dependence and impeded reforms that deliver sustainable economic growth. …Between 1970 and 2000 – a period in which aid to Africa skyrocketed – annual gross domestic product growth per capita on the continent fell from about 2 percent to zero growth, according to a study by an economist at New York University.

A column in the U.K.-based Times is very blunt about what all this means.

…the international development secretary should have abolished her department as soon as she was appointed to it… We kid ourselves that this aid works, to salve our consciences about being better off. But as we know, the money benefits charities, quangos, bureaucrats, tyrants and the predatory elite, and all these years later your average African is no better off.

Let’s close by looking at a thorough 2005 study from the International Policy Network. Authored by Fredrik Erixon, it documents the failure of foreign aid.

…the ‘gap theory’…assumes that poor countries are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty because they are unable to save and hence have insufficient capital to invest in growth-promoting, productivity-enhancing activities. But there simply is no evidence that this savings/investment ‘gap’ exists in practice. As a result, aid has failed to ‘fill the gap’. Instead, it has, over the past fifty years, largely been counterproductive: it has crowded out private sector investments, undermined democracy, and enabled despots to continue with oppressive policies, perpetuating poverty. …The reason countries are poor is…because they lack the institutions of the free society: property rights, the rule of law, free markets, and limited government. … many studies point to the fact that government consumption in SubSaharan Africa has increased when aid has increased.

Here’s the evidence showing has more development assistance is associated with weaker economic performance.

By the way, the International Monetary Fund deserves unrestrained scorn for recommending higher tax burdens on Africans, thus making economic growth even harder to achieve.

Now let’s look at how two Asian regions have enjoyed growth as aid lessened.

Last but not least, here’s some very encouraging data from Africa.

I already mentioned that Botswana is an exception to the rule. As you can see, that nation’s success is definitely not the result of more handouts.

The bottom line is that President Trump is right, even if his motives are misguided.

Foreign aid is not the recipe for prosperity in Central America.

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Redistribution has a corrosive impact on both ends. Recipients are harmed because they get trapped in dependency, and workers are harmed because taxes discourage productive behavior.

Yet young people seem susceptible to this ideology, even when they are among the main victims.

While it might be tempting to shrug and assume they’re hopelessly clueless, this video shows young people are quite capable of grasping why redistribution is a bad idea.

I’ve previously shared a similar video, as well as a couple of written versions of this redistribution challenge.

In this case, though, we have some additional analysis.

Here are some excerpts from the accompanying article.

…for the first time ever, more young people say they’d prefer to live in a socialist country over a capitalist one. Whether it’s free healthcare, free college tuition, or universal basic income, students around America increasingly support higher taxes on the wealthy in order to pay for these progressive policies.  But would they support similar policies if they had skin in the game? …Campus Reform‘s Cabot Phillips went to Florida International University in Miami to test the waters on a “Socialist GPA” policy in which students with higher GPAs would be forced to “spread the wealth” and give some of their GPA points to students with lower GPAs. Despite the overwhelming number of students who initially said they’d support socialist policies, few agreed to go along with such a plan.

Interestingly, the students actually are quite perceptive when they apply incentives in their own lives.

“I’ve lost a lot of sleep so I don’t know if that would be fair,” one student said, while another answered no because “I like, study all day for my grades.” Yet another student, after expressing her support for socialism in America conceded, “I guess it would be kind of hypocritical for me to say no.” Another student, trying to justify his refusal to abide by such a policy, said, “you study for your grades, and they reflect how much time you’re studying.”

As a wonky economist, the first thing I wondered about is how young people would react if they were asked about a small amount of redistribution (say 1/10th of a point of a GPA) compared to a large amount of redistribution (a full point of GPA).

I’m guessing they would realize that the damage of the latter would be more than 10 times the damage of the former – which is exactly the same thing you find when you examine the deadweight losses of ever-higher tax rates.

Two final points.

  • First, many young people don’t understand socialism. They think it’s just a proxy for caring. Or even for being sociable. It’s incumbent on advocates of freedom to help them understand the adverse implications (i.e., redistributing money is just as bad as redistributing GPAs).
  • Second, it won’t be easy to make an ethical appeal to young people if they perceive (and many do) that capitalism is the same as cronyism. Which is why self-styled conservatives (or Trumpians) who support favors for special interests do a lot of damage to the cause of freedom.

P.S. Since they are huge net losers from the current system, young people should be very amenable to a message of genuine entitlement reform.

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It seems like every Democrat in the country plans to run against Trump in 2020 and presumably all of them will feel compelled to issue manifestos outlining their policy agendas.

Which gives me lots of material for my daily column. I’ve previously written about statist initiatives from Bernie Sanders and bizarre ideas put forth by Elizabeth Warren.

Today, let’s review the two big ideas that have been unveiled by Kamala Harris, the Senator from California who just announced her bid for the White House.

We’ll start with her idea to create a federal subsidy for rent payments. I wrote about this new handout last year, and warned that it would enrich landlords (much as tuition subsidies enrich colleges and health subsidies enrich providers).

Here’s some of what Professor Tyler Cowen wrote for Bloomberg about the proposal.

One of the worst tendencies in American politics is to restrict supply and subsidize demand. …The likely result of such policies is high and rising prices, restricted access and often poor quality. If you limit the number of homes and apartments, for example, but give buyers subsidies, that is a formula for exorbitant prices. That is what makes early accounts of Senator Kamala Harris’s economic plans so disappointing. …Consider Harris’s embrace of subsidies for renters, as reflected by her recent sponsorship of the Rent Relief Act of 2018. Given the high price of housing in many parts of the U.S., it is easy to see why the idea might have appeal. But the best and most sustainable way of producing cheaper housing is to build more homes and apartments. The resulting increase in supply will cause prices to fall… That is basic supply and demand, with supply doing the active work. The Harris bill, in contrast, calls for tax credits to renters. …There is an obvious problem with this approach. If you subsidize renters, that will push up the price of apartments. Furthermore, economic logic suggests that big rent increases are most likely in those cases where the supply of apartments is relatively fixed, a basic principle of what is called “tax incidence theory.” In sum, most of the gains from this policy would go to landlords, not renters.

In other words, this is a perfect plan for a politician who understands “public choice” theory.

Ordinary voters think they’re getting a freebie, but the benefits actually go to those with political influence and power.

Now let’s look at her $2.7 trillion tax cut. I believe that people should be allowed to keep the lion’s share of any money they earn, so my gut instinct is to cheer.

But it’s always good to be skeptical when a politician is offering something that sounds too good to be true.

Kyle Pomerlau of the Tax Foundation has done the heavy lifting and looked closely at the details. He has a thorough explanation of her plan and its likely impact.

The “LIFT the Middle-Class Act” (LIFT) would create a new refundable tax credit available to low- and middle-income taxpayers. …LIFT would provide a refundable credit that would match a maximum of $3,000 in earned income ($6,000 for married couples filing jointly). …The credit would begin to phase out for single taxpayers starting at $30,000 of adjusted gross income (AGI) and $80,000 for single taxpayers with children, and begin phasing out for married taxpayers at $60,000 of AGI. The phaseout rate for all taxpayers would be 15 percent. …LIFT’s impact on the economy is primarily through its effect on the labor force. LIFT phases in from the first dollar of earned income to the maximum credit of $3,000 per tax filer. It then phases out starting at different levels of income, depending on a tax filer’s marital status and whether they have children. These phase-ins and phaseouts create implicit marginal subsidies and tax rates that impact individuals’ incentive to work.

At the risk of oversimplifying, Harris is proposing a new version of the earned income credit.

And that means some taxpayers get subsidized for working and some taxpayers get penalized.

For taxpayers in the credit phaseout range, tax liability would increase by 15 cents for each additional dollar earned. This means that these taxpayers would face an additional implicit marginal tax rate of 15 percent, which would reduce these taxpayers’ incentive to work additional hours. In contrast, taxpayers in the phase-in range of the credit would get $1 for each additional $1 of income they earn. As such, these taxpayers would benefit from an effective marginal subsidy rate, or negative marginal tax rate, of 100 percent. A negative tax rate of 100 percent would increase the incentive for these taxpayers to work additional hours.

Kyle crunches the numbers to determine the overall economic impact.

While the positive labor force effects of the phase-in of the credit could offset the negative effect of the phaseout, we find that, on net, the size of the total labor force would shrink under this policy. This is primarily due to the large number of taxpayers that would fall in the phaseout range of the credit relative to the number of individuals that would benefit from the phase-in. …We estimate that the credit…would reduce economic output by 0.7 percent and result in about 825,906 fewer full-time equivalent jobs.

Here’s the relevant table from the Tax Foundation’s report.

This is remarkable. It would seem impossible to design a $2.7 trillion tax cut that actually hurts the economy, but Sen. Harris has succeeded in that dubious achievement.

For all intents and purposes, she has figured out how to have an anti-supply-side tax cut.

And there are two other problems that deserve attention.

  • First, as noted in Kyle’s paper, the tax cut is “refundable.” This means that money goes to people who don’t pay taxes. In other words, it is government spending being laundered through the tax code. So Harris claims to be cutting taxes, but part of what she’s doing is expanding redistribution and making government bigger (and encouraging more fraud).
  • Second, Harris is very cagey about how the numbers work in her proposal. Does she want the tax cuts (and new spending) financed by more borrowing? By printing money? By offsetting class-warfare tax increases? Some combination of the three? Whatever the answer, the negative economic damage will be substantially higher if financing costs are included.

Considering the poor design and upside-down economics of the rent subsidy scheme and the new tax credit, the bottom line is rather obvious: Kamala Harris wants to buy votes, and she has decided that it is okay to hurt the economy in hopes of achieving her political ambitions.

No wonder she fits in so well in Washington!

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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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Washington is a place that gets infatuated with trendy ideas. A few years ago, everyone was talking about a “universal basic income” because of the strange assumption that millions of people will be unemployable in the future.

That idea was mostly embraced by folks on the left (though not Joe Biden), but there’s now a related idea on the right to provide “wage subsidies” so that unemployable (or difficult to employ) people can get work.

A leading proponent is Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute, who wrote The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America.

National Review published an excerpt from his book.

Work has enormous social value for the individuals who engage in it and for the formation and stability of their families, the opportunities of their children, and the vibrancy of their communities. Ideally, the labor market would settle in a place where productive, family-supporting work was available to all people in all places. But nothing in the theory of economics guarantees such an outcome… If we really want to “pay for jobs” — and we should — then we should do it directly. …a…“Federal Work Bonus,”…an additional $3 into your check for every hour worked? That would be a wage subsidy. …a wage subsidy aims to produce that effect in the labor market. Workers unwilling to sell their labor for less than $12 per hour may be worth only $9 per hour to an employer. No job will emerge in that scenario. With the insertion of a $3-per-hour wage subsidy, by contrast, the employer can pay the $9 per hour that the work is worth and the worker can receive the $12 per hour that he demanded. Thus will appear a job where none existed before. …The value of the subsidy would be set relative to a “target wage” of, say, $15 per hour and would close half the gap between the market wage and the target. A worker would initially receive a subsidy of $3 per hour in this case, equal to approximately $6,000 per year if he worked full-time.

The wage subsidy Cass advocates is similar to the “earned income tax credit,” which is basically a redistribution program that is administered through the tax code.

But Cass wants the EITC to be universally available rather than primarily targeted at households with children.

The federal earned income-tax credit (EITC) already operates something like a wage subsidy, offering low-income households large tax refunds that can exceed what they paid in taxes to begin with. But the EITC gets paid long after the income is earned — at tax time the following year — based on an opaque formula. It creates none of a wage subsidy’s immediate, transparent effect in the labor market. …The EITC also skews its benefits heavily toward households with children. A single person working full-time at minimum wage would get a credit of $41, less than 1 percent of what his colleague with kids can expect.

For what it’s worth, Cass acknowledges that employers might capture some of the benefits of a wage subsidy.

If the government offers a $3 subsidy atop a $9-per-hour job, the result will not necessarily be a $12-per-hour job. The employer might instead cut the market wage to $8, to which the government would add $3.50 — half the $7 gap to the target wage of $15 — leaving the worker with $11.50. …How workers and employers respond to the subsidy will vary based on labor-market conditions. What we do know from studies of the EITC and a similar program in the United Kingdom is that, in those instances, roughly 75 percent of the financial benefit accrued to workers.

Now let’s discuss the policy implications.

Cass openly admits that a wage subsidy is a form of redistribution, and – much to my dismay – he doesn’t object if at least some of that new spending is financed by higher taxes.

Subsidizing wages is a particularly well-tailored response to the challenges that globalization presents for American workers. First, the wage subsidy is the appropriate mechanism for redistributing gains from the economy’s “winners” to its “losers.” It comes closest to doing this directly, by taking tax revenue drawn from higher earners and inserting it directly into the paychecks of lower earners. …it is redistribution. And yes, high-income taxpayers will finance it. …The roughly $200 billion price tag for a wage subsidy might require some new tax revenue, but its funding could come largely from the existing safety net, which already dedicates more than $1 trillion annually to low-income households — including many with workers.

The following excerpt also rubbed me the wrong way since he seems to be saying that it would be better if Washington had expanded redistribution instead of lowering the corporate tax rate.

…in debates over the 2017 tax-reform package, which ultimately increased the ten-year federal deficit by $1.5 trillion for the sake of reducing the corporate tax rate, while failing to deliver even the small EITC increase for childless workers that Ryan had once championed. Indeed, while the Khanna proposal in its 2017 form is not a serious one, even it could have been implemented more cheaply than the tax reform that ultimately passed. The deficit spending would have been equally costly, but at least the labor market and its low-wage workers would have been the chief beneficiaries. …the Republican party’s relative disinterest in the labor market is made apparent by its preference for a tax cut over a wage subsidy.

This is very troubling. In the long run, faster growth is much better for low-income workers.

I’m not the only skeptic of this plan.

Writing for the Week, AEI’s Jame Pethokoukis argues that Cass bases his idea on a misreading of the economy.

One of his innovative analytical insights is that economic growth from globalization is bad for workers. …This is a terrible reading of history… America would be worse off today if it had somehow kept the closed “golden age” economy of the 1950s and 1960s. Its lack of openness greatly harmed American workers… Too much of American industry became complacent, unproductive… Likewise, would America have a more thriving economy today without Silicon Valley? …Cass’ reading of the data isn’t much better as he adopts the stance of many leftists that most Americans are no better off than decades ago. Yet a recent Congressional Budget Office study shows a nearly 50 percent increase in middle-class incomes since 1970, with incomes for the bottom fifth up some 80 percent.

And Michael Strain, also with the American Enterprise Institute, was similarly critical in a column for Bloomberg.

Economic growth is under attack. Or, more specifically, the idea that public policy should place a large amount of emphasis on the economy’s rate of growth is under assault… Traditionally, conservatives have placed a premium on growth as the best way to advance the fortunes of all Americans. But in recent years, some on the right have [been] playing down the importance of growth to the well-being of many working-class Americans. The latest argument for that position comes from Oren Cass… Cass argues that the results from decades of policies designed to encourage GDP growth are “embarrassing” and have “steered the nation off course.” …conservatives have been right in their traditional focus on growth. Let’s recall why. …the hot U.S. economy is the best jobs program available for lower-wage and vulnerable workers. …this strength is benefiting low-wage workers more than other groups. …Growth doesn’t just help low-income and working-class households in the short term. Over longer periods, seemingly small changes in the growth rate have large consequences. In the past four decades, for example, real GDP per person has increased from about $28,000 to over $55,000, growing at about 1.7 percent per year. If growth instead had been 1 percent, average GDP per head would be about three-quarters what it is today.

Needless to say, I strongly agree with Strain’s final point about the importance of faster growth.

Though I confess to being at a disadvantage when judging these anti-Cass columns since I haven’t read the book.

However, to the degree that Cass truly has given up on growth (i.e., accepting some form of the “secular stagnation” hypothesis), then I side with Pethokoukis and Strain.

But that’s not my main concern. Here are the four reasons that motivate my objection to wage subsidies.

  1. Redistribution should not be a responsibility of the federal government. Indeed, I want all redistribution devolved to state and local governments (or to the private sector).
  2. Cass says the program will cost $200 billion. Like with most government programs, I assume the actual fiscal burden will wind up being much higher. Especially after the left starts a bidding war.
  3. Existing wages subsidies are riddled with fraud because the government effectively gives people lots of money simply for filing a tax return, yet rarely bothers to confirm they actually earned the income.
  4. Wage subsidies actually turn into wage penalties (i.e., punitive implicit marginal tax rates) when income rises above the target level and the handouts are withdrawn.

The bottom line is that Cass is right that it’s better to subsidize work rather than idleness.

However, Americans already are too dependent on Uncle Sam. It would be even better if we simply achieved more growth by adopting the tried-and-tested recipe for prosperity.

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