MIT Professor Erik Brynjolfsson just dropped some heavy knowledge on a DAVOS panel. Sam Seder and the Majority Report crew discuss this.
And how to limit the economic damage
.. If revenues are to rise, there are good grounds to look first to the rich. Mr Trump’s tax cuts are just the latest change to have made life at the top more splendorous. Between 1990 and 2015 the real income of the top 1% of households, after taxes and transfers, nearly doubled. Over the same period middle incomes grew by only about a third—and most of that was thanks to government intervention. Globalisation, technological change and ebbing competition have all helped the rich prosper in recent decades. Techno-prophets fear that inequality could soon worsen further, as algorithms replace workers en masse. Whether or not they are right, the disproportionate gains the rich have already enjoyed could justify raising new revenues from them.
Unfortunately, the proposed new schemes are poorly designed. Ms Warren’s takes aim at wealth inequality, which has also risen dramatically. It is legitimate to tax wealth. But Ms Warren’s levy would be crude, distorting and hard to enforce. A business owner making nominal annual returns of around 5% would see much of that wiped out, before accounting for existing taxes on capital. That prospect would squash investment and enterprise. Meanwhile, bureaucrats would repeatedly find themselves having to value billionaires’ art collections and other illiquid assets. Eight rich countries have scrapped their wealth taxes since 1990, often amid concerns about their economic and administrative costs. In 2017 only four levied them.
There are better ways to raise taxes on capital. One is to increase inheritance tax, an inequality-buster that, though also too easily avoided, is relatively gentle on investment and work incentives when levied at modest rates. Another is to target economic rents and windfalls that inflate investment returns. Higher property taxes can efficiently capture some of the astronomical gains that landowners near successful cities have enjoyed. It is also possible to raise taxes on corporations that enjoy abnormally high profits without severely inhibiting growth. The trick is to shield investment spending by letting companies deduct it from their taxable profit immediately, rather than as their assets depreciate. (Mr Trump’s reform accomplished this, but only partially and temporarily.)
.. What about income tax? Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s boosters point out that a 70% levy is close to the rate that is said to maximise revenue in one notable economic study. In truth the study is notable because it is an outlier—one that ignores the benefits of entrepreneurial innovation or of workers improving their skills. France’s short-lived 75% top tax rate, which was scrapped at the end of 2014, raised less money than was hoped. America’s top rate of federal income tax is 37%; higher is clearly feasible, but it would be wise to keep change incremental.
Although there is scope to raise taxes on the rich, they cannot pay for everything, if only because the rich are relatively scarce. One estimate puts extra annual revenue from Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s idea, which applies only to incomes above $10m, at perhaps $12bn, or 0.3% of the tax take. Ms Warren’s proposal would raise $210bn a year, her backers say—but they assume, implausibly, limited avoidance and no economic damage. Ultimately, the price of ambitious spending programmes will be tax increases that are also far-reaching. The crucial point about a strategy for taxing the rich is to realise that it has limits.
At the same time, they panned the idea of higher tax rates for society’s wealthiest
Leaders of the world’s largest and most powerful companies are on edge. A decade after the financial crisis, their businesses are thriving and their pocketbooks are overflowing, but they worry about populism and the threat it poses to the global order they helped build.
Many executives gathered at the exclusive World Economic Forum this week acknowledged that inequality is a major problem fueling populist backlash, and that some middle-class jobs in the West are being lost to trade and automation (even though more jobs overall are being created around the world).
A few business leaders in Davos went so far as compare today’s situation to the late 19th century, an era when tycoons like Andrew Carnegie, Andrew W. Mellon, and John D. Rockefeller amassed huge fortunes while most in the working class toiled under harsh conditions.
“We’re living in a Gilded Age,” said Scott Minerd, chief investment officer of Guggenheim Partners, which manages more than $265 billion in assets. “I think, in America, the aristocrats are out of touch. They don’t understand the issues around the common man.”
The solution to inequality, many in Davos said, is “upskilling” people so that they can obtain better jobs in the digital economy.
“The lack of education in those areas in digital is absolutely shocking. That has to be changed,” Stephen A. Schwarzman, chief executive of Blackstone, told a panel. “That will very much lessen the inequalities that people have in terms of job opportunities.”
Schwarzman, whose net worth is estimated at $13 billion, said it is “up to the grown-ups” to make digital upskilling happen in K-12 schools.
.. His calls were echoed by others, including Ruth Porat, chief financial officer at Alphabet, Google’s parent company; Keith Block, co-chief executive of Salesforce; C Vijayakumar, chief executive of HCL Technologies; and Michael Dell, founder of Dell Technologies.
“All of us collectively can do quite a lot to create opportunities so that everybody is included in this growth,” said Dell, who is worth an estimated $28 billion. “It’s going to require lots of new skills, capabilities.”
Dell said the issue goes beyond K-12 education and that companies need to train workers continuously. His own company struggles with finding enough skilled workers, and poaching them from other companies doesn’t work, Dell added. “You need to hire and train and grow them from within.”
.. In a report released earlier this month, the forum estimated it would cost the United States $34 billion to reskill the 1.37 million workers expected to lose their jobs to automation in the next decade. The forum said 86 percent of the cost “would likely fall on the government.”
“Upskilling is not going to alter the insecurities and inequalities,” said Guy Standing, author of “The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class,” who spoke on four panels at Davos this year. He said most executives still don’t understand what is needed.
Standing said calls for more education and training were a “cop-out,” and that the result would undoubtedly help only a small number of people, which in turn could bring down wages and status in whatever new jobs they went on to obtain.
A study in 2015 by economists Brad J. Hershbein, Melissa S. Kearney and Lawrence H. Summers postulated what would happen if 10 percent of American men, ages 25 to 64, who did not have a bachelor’s degree suddenly obtained one. They found that it would improve pay and job prospects for the men who earned the degrees, but would do little to reduce the inequality gap because the richest Americans have so much more income and wealth.
But millionaires and billionaires in Davos panned the idea of higher taxes, arguing that the private sector does a better job than the government of spending money wisely.
“No, I am not supportive of that, and I don’t think it would help the growth of the U.S. economy,” Dell responded when asked about his views of Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a 70 percent marginal income tax on earnings above $10 million.
Dell noted that he and his wife contribute most of their wealth to a foundation. “I feel much more comfortable with our ability as a private foundation to allocate those funds than I do giving them to the government.”
Others argued that their tax rate is already high and that raising tax rates could push people to move abroad or not invest.
“If I look at my tax rate now, it’s probably well into the 60s,” said AECOM chief executive Michael S. Burke, adding that he pays federal taxes, California income taxes, sales tax and a significant property tax. “I think we ought to have a competitive tax rate.”
.. When asked whether corporations should pay higher taxes, executives again criticized the idea. In 2017, President Trump and the Republicans in Congress passed a sweeping tax bill with the largest corporate tax cut in U.S. history.
“It’s an easy fix, I think, for many people to say, ‘Well, let’s just tax,’” Block said during a panel.
By contrast, leaders from academia and the nonprofit world were quick to call for higher taxes and a redistribution of income.
.. An Oxfam report this week found that the share of wealth held by billionaires was increasing by $2.5 billion a day, while the share of wealth among the 3.8 billion of the world’s poorest was decreasing by $500 million dollars a day. While some quibble with the methodology of the Oxfam report, there’s widespread consensus that inequality is getting worse in many parts of the world.
.. “Davos is always in favor of reducing inequality and poverty: locally, nationally and globally — but not if they have to pay for it,” tweeted economist Branko Milanovic who studies inequality at the City University of New York (CUNY).
However, others said it was not practical to look for solutions to the problems of the common man from the top echelons of society.
“There’s an uncomfortable awareness that things are not right, the ecological crisis, the angst out there, the Brexit vote, the Trump vote, but then they come up with these bromide platitudes,” said Standing. “But in a sense, we can’t expect them to provide the answers. They are part of the problem.”
The new socialists need a refresher course in government math.
How much money would the government reap from a 70% tax rate on income above $10 million? Authors Kyle Pomerleau and Huaqun Li looked at two scenarios—one if the rate applied only to ordinary income like wages and interest, and another if it also applied to income from capital gains.
The best case scenario: a 70% rate would raise less than $300 billion in revenue over 10 years, which is less than half of the $700 billion that has been cited in press reports.
.. A 70% top rate would generate even less revenue if extended to capital gains. Investors only pay when they realize gains by selling assets, and they are especially sensitive to tax rates when deciding whether to sell. High rates can leave money locked into a current asset instead of flowing to the next good idea.
.. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez won’t admit it, but she and her socialist friends will eventually have to go where the real money is: The middle class. That means higher tax rates on even modest wage earners; taxes on retirement savings like 401(k)s or college savings accounts.
What does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez know about tax policy? A lot.
I have no idea how well Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will perform as a member of Congress. But her election is already serving a valuable purpose. You see, the mere thought of having a young, articulate, telegenic nonwhite woman serve is driving many on the right mad — and in their madness they’re inadvertently revealing their true selves.
Some of the revelations are cultural: The hysteria over a video of AOC dancing in college says volumes, not about her, but about the hysterics. But in some ways the more important revelations are intellectual: The right’s denunciation of AOC’s “insane” policy ideas serves as a very good reminder of who is actually insane.
The controversy of the moment involves AOC’s advocacy of a tax rate of 70-80 percent on very high incomes, which is obviously crazy, right? I mean, who thinks that makes sense? Only ignorant people like … um, Peter Diamond, Nobel laureate in economics and arguably the world’s leading expert on public finance (although Republicans blocked him from an appointment to the Federal Reserve Board with claims that he was unqualified. Really.) And it’s a policy nobody has every implemented, aside from … the United States, for 35 years after World War II — including the most successful period of economic growth in our history.
.. To be more specific, Diamond, in work with Emmanuel Saez — one of our leading experts on inequality — estimated the optimal top tax rate to be 73 percent. Some put it higher: Christina Romer, top macroeconomist and former head of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, estimates it at more than 80 percent.
Where do these numbers come from? Underlying the Diamond-Saez analysis are two propositions: Diminishing marginal utility and competitive markets.
Diminishing marginal utility is the common-sense notion that an extra dollar is worth a lot less in satisfaction to people with very high incomes than to those with low incomes. Give a family with an annual income of $20,000 an extra $1,000 and it will make a big difference to their lives. Give a guy who makes $1 million an extra thousand and he’ll barely notice it.
What this implies for economic policy is that we shouldn’t care what a policy does to the incomes of the very rich. A policy that makes the rich a bit poorer will affect only a handful of people, and will barely affect their life satisfaction, since they will still be able to buy whatever they want.
So why not tax them at 100 percent? The answer is that this would eliminate any incentive to do whatever it is they do to earn that much money, which would hurt the economy. In other words, tax policy toward the rich should have nothing to do with the interests of the rich, per se, but should only be concerned with how incentive effects change the behavior of the rich, and how this affects the rest of the population.
But here’s where competitive markets come in. In a perfectly competitive economy, with no monopoly power or other distortions — which is the kind of economy conservatives want us to believe we have — everyone gets paid his or her marginal product. That is, if you get paid $1000 an hour, it’s because each extra hour you work adds $1000 worth to the economy’s output.
Before the ink was dry on our new tax bill, outraged blue states were screaming about the cap on the deductibility of state and local taxes. Their governments were also frantically seekingways around it, and small wonder. For decades, high-tax states with a lot of wealthy residents enjoyed a hefty subsidy from the rest of America.
.. Over the past few decades, the United States has undergone “the Big Sort,” the clumping of the electorate into demographically, professionally and politically homogenous neighborhoods. Clinton voters have their Zip codes, and Trump voters theirs, and ever more rarely do the twain meet.
.. No, the money for American-style social democracy is all supposed to come from the rich. “I’ve been frustrated with liberals,” says Len Burman of the Tax Policy Center. “They really do just want to raise all the revenue from rich people, and they don’t understand that that really constrains what they can do in terms of financing the safety net.”.. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will keep promising big new programs with laughably inadequate financing mechanisms.. Blue-state professionals have enjoyed a disproportionate share of the prosperity gains over the past few decades; if they want a bigger government, they’ll have to give up those gains to fund it.
If progressive political parties had pursued a bolder agenda in the face of widening inequality and deepening economic anxiety, perhaps the rise of right-wing, nativist political movements might have been averted. So why didn’t they?
Why were democratic political systems not responsive early enough to the grievances that autocratic populists have successfully exploited – inequality and economic anxiety, decline of perceived social status, the chasm between elites and ordinary citizens? Had political parties, particularly of the center left, pursued a bolder agenda, perhaps the rise of right-wing, nativist political movements might have been averted.
.. Part of the reason for this, at least in the US, is that the Democratic Party’s embrace of identity politics (highlighting inclusiveness along lines of gender, race, and sexual orientation) and other socially liberal causes came at the expense of the bread-and-butter issues of incomes and jobs. As Robert Kuttner writes in a new book, the only thing missing from Hillary Clinton’s platform during the 2016 presidential election was social class.
.. One explanation is that the Democrats (and center-left parties in Western Europe) became too cozy with big finance and large corporations. Kuttner describes how Democratic Party leaders made an explicit decision to reach out to the financial sector following President Ronald Reagan’s electoral victories in the 1980s. Big banks became particularly influential not just through their financial clout, but also through their control of key policymaking positions in Democratic administrations. The economic policies of the 1990s might have taken a different path if Bill Clinton had listened more to his labor secretary, Robert Reich, an academic and progressive policy advocate, and less to his Treasury secretary, Robert Rubin, a former Goldman Sachs executive.
.. Until the late 1960s, the poor generally voted for parties of the left, while the wealthy voted for the right. Since then, left-wing parties have been increasingly captured by the well-educated elite, whom Piketty calls the “Brahmin Left,” to distinguish them from the “Merchant” class whose members still vote for right-wing parties. Piketty argues that this bifurcation of the elite has insulated the political system from redistributive demands.
The Brahmin Left is not friendly to redistribution, because it believes in meritocracy – a world in which effort gets rewarded and low incomes are more likely to be the result of insufficient effort than poor luck.
.. Ideas about how the world works have played a role among the non-elite as well, by dampening the demand for redistribution. Contrary to the implications of the Meltzer-Richard framework, ordinary American voters do not seem to be very interested in raising top marginal tax rates or in greater social transfers.
What explains this apparent paradox is these voters’ very low levels of trust in government’s ability to address inequality. One team of economists has found that respondents “primed” by references to lobbyists or the Wall Street bailout display significantly lower levels of support for anti-poverty policies.
.. Trust in government has generally been declining in the US since the 1960s
.. But a progressive left that is able to stand up to nativist politics will have to deliver a good story, in addition to good policies.