Not surprisingly, American billionaires have dismissed recent wealth-tax proposals as an affront to the entrepreneurial spirit to which they attribute their massive wealth. But the ultra-rich never would have their great wealth without legal subsidies from the state and reliable enforcement by the courts.
NEW YORK – Economic inequality has moved to the top of the political agenda in many countries, including free-market poster children like the United States and the United Kingdom. The issue is mobilizing the left and causing headaches on the right, where wealth has long been viewed as worthy of celebration, not as demanding justification.
But today’s concentrations of wealth do demand justification. In 2018, Forbes listed three billionaires among its top ten most powerful people in the world. Next to the heads of states of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, US President Donald Trump, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one finds not only the Pope, but also Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, and Google co-founder Larry Page. All three owe their power not to public position or spiritual influence but to private wealth.
As contenders in the Democratic primary for the 2020 US presidential election, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have promised to impose new taxes on the super-wealthy. Warren’s wealth-tax proposal – a levy of 2% on every dollar of net worth above $50 million, rising to 6% for fortunes greater than $1 billion – has ruffled billionaires’ feathers. According to Gates, he has paid more in taxes than almost anybody – some $10 billion. And while he would consider it “fine” if that figure had been doubled to $20 billion, he believes a much higher tax would threaten the incentive system that led him (and others) to invest in the first place.
For his part, Michael Bloomberg, the founder of the Bloomberg news empire, a former mayor of New York City, and now a Democratic presidential contender himself, argues that a wealth tax might be unconstitutional, and that it would turn the US into the likes of Venezuela. And not to be outdone, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has suggested that taxing billionaires’ wealth would lead to worse outcomes than leaving it where it is, implying that the ultra-wealthy know better than the peoples’ elected representatives how tax revenues should be spent.
Note the sense of entitlement underlying each of these reactions. Each man’s billions, we are told, belong to him; he earned the money and should therefore get to decide how to spend it, be it on philanthropic projects, taxes, or neither. The billionaires tell us that they are willing to pay a fair share of taxes, but that there is some undefined threshold where the incentives to innovate and invest will be thrown into reverse. At that point, apparently, the ultra-wealthy will go on strike, leaving the rest of us worse off.
But this perspective ignores the fact that accumulated wealth is largely a product of law, and by implication of the state and the people who constitute it. As economist Thomas Piketty demonstrates in his 2014 book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the rich today hold most of their wealth in financial assets, which are simply legally protected promises to receive future cash flows. Take away legal enforceability, and all that remains is hope, not a secure asset.
Moreover, the private empires over which today’s billionaires preside are organized as legally chartered corporations, which makes them creatures of the law, not of nature. The corporate form shields the personal wealth of the founders and other shareholders from the corporation’s creditors. It also facilitates the diversification of risk within a company, by allowing discrete pools of assets to be created, each with its own set of creditors who are barred from making claims on another asset pool, even though the parent company’s management controls all of them.
Further, the company’s own shares can be used as currency when acquiring other companies. When Facebook bought WhatsApp, it covered $12 billion of the $16 billion purchase price with its own shares, paying only $4 billion in cash. And, as with Facebook, corporate law can be used to cement control by founders and their affiliates through dual-class share structures that grant them more votes than everyone else. As such, they need not fear elections or takeovers of any kind.
Finally, companies whose assets take the form of intellectual property (IP) and other intangibles tend to rely even more on the helping hand of the law. As of 2018, 84% of the market capitalization of the S&P 500 was held in such intangible assets. It takes a legal intervention to turn ideas, skills, and knowhow – which are free to be shared by anybody – into exclusive property rights that are enforced by the full power of the state. And in recent years, Microsoft and other US tech companies have boosted their earning power significantly by promoting US-style IP rules around the world through the World Trade Organization’s body for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).
To be sure, there are good reasons for states to adopt laws that empower private agents to reap the rewards of organizing businesses and developing new products and services. But let’s call a spade a spade and a (legal) subsidy a subsidy. While Bezos, Bloomberg, Gates, and Zuckerberg may well be savvy entrepreneurs, they also have benefited on a massive scale from the helping hand of legislatures and courts around the world. This hand is more contingent than the invisible one immortalized by Adam Smith, because its vitality depends on a widely shared belief in the rule of law. The erosion of that belief, not a tax, poses the greatest threat to billionaires’ wealth.
The decisive Conservative victory in Britain leaves no doubt that in today’s global equation, national interests are supreme and globalization is suspect.
The notion that global economic integration amounts to human progress had a good run, dominating the thinking of the powers that be for more than seven decades. But a new era is underway in which national interests take primacy over collective concerns, with trading arrangements negotiated among individual countries.
Britain’s voters made that clear on Thursday in handing an emphatic majority to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party, all but ensuring that the world’s fifth-largest economy — and a charter member of the international trading system — will proceed with its abandonment of the European Union.
A preliminary deal hailed on Friday by the two largest economies, the United States and China, raised the prospect of easing their high-stakes trade animosities. But the nature of their engagement — country to country, not mediated by the World Trade Organization or some other international authority — underscored the principles of the new age.
Britain now faces another complex phase in its tangled European divorce proceedings — negotiations over the terms of its future economic relationship with the Continent. But in one form or another, “getting Brexit done,” the mantra that Mr. Johnson promised and can now deliver, marks a profound change in the world trading system.
In the aftermath of World War II, the victorious Allies built an international order on the understanding that when countries swap goods they become less inclined to trade artillery volleys.
Britain’s departure from the European Union is the clearest manifestation that this idea no longer holds decisive sway. It is not the only one.
The traditional arbiter of international trade disputes, the World Trade Organization, is listing toward irrelevance as countries bypass its channels to impose tariffs. Its appellate body, which adjudicates disputes, has been rendered inoperative by the Trump administration’s blocking of new judges. The panel needs at least three judges to render verdicts, but now has only one.
“The sense that policy moves in one direction, toward more liberalization and more integration, has been replaced by recognition that policy can go backward as well as forward,” said Brad Setser, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
The United States and China together account for more than a third of the global economy, making their wave of escalating tariffs a cause for alarm about diminishing fortunes in nearly every country exposed to international trade — from Germany to South Korea to Mexico.
President Trump has put stock in the unrivaled scale of the American economy in seeking favorable trading arrangements. In his calculus, the United States boasts the advantage in any bilateral trade negotiations and can tilt the rules toward American interests.
This was the logic that prompted Mr. Trump to renounce American participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade bloc spanning a dozen countries. It was a project pursued by his immediate predecessor, President Barack Obama, in part to press China to address longstanding complaints that it subsidized key industries, doled out credit to favored companies and manipulated the value of its currency to gain advantage in world markets.
In taking on China, the Obama administration employed the multilateralist mind-set that had guided American policy since the end of World War II. The Pacific trading bloc would set rules on investment, labor and environmental standards. Its members would profit through growing trade, and China would want in. To gain access, China would be forced to adopt the bloc’s rules.
But in Trumpian thinking, multilateralism is for suckers. Shortly after he was sworn in, declaring as his credo “America First,” Mr. Trump ditched the Pacific bloc and weaponized the American market: If China wanted access to the 327 million consumers in the richest country on earth, it would have to buy more American goods and play fair.
On Friday, Mr. Trump cited the preliminary agreement as evidence that his strategy was working. The United States would sharply reduce the tariffs it had affixed to Chinese goods, while China promised to buy more American farm products and respect intellectual property. Mr. Trump called it “an amazing deal for all.”
But economists said the announcement of new farm purchases reflected goods that China was already buying. Even as the scrapping of the next wave of tariffs weighed as positive for the global economy, few were proclaiming the advent of enduring peace. The United States and China have descended into such an adversarial state that they are likely to continue seeking alternatives to exchanging goods and investment. Companies that make goods in China will face pressure to explore other countries, posing disruption to the global supply chain.
China’s leaders have come to construe trade hostilities as part of an American bullying campaign engineered to suppress their national aspirations and deny the country its rightful place as a superpower. Nationalist sentiments and security concerns have become intertwined with trade policy, complicating the pursuit of a final deal.
Now Britain, in leaving the European bloc, embarks on a strategy aimed at securing bilateral trading arrangements with major economies, from the United States and China to Australia and India.
Trade deals are complex and difficult. They entail prying open new markets for exports in exchange for exposing domestic companies to new competitors. Powerful interest groups complain. Deals take years.
Arithmetic reveals that no combination of trade deals is likely to compensate Britain fully for what it stands to lose in walking away from the European single marketplace, a territory stretching from Greece to Ireland.
Britain sends nearly half of its exports to the European Union, a flow of goods imperiled by Brexit. Britain’s appeal as a headquarters for multinational companies will be undermined as it finds itself separated from the Continent by a revived border.
The fraying of international trading arrangements and the rise of nationalist imperatives have been driven by intensifying public anger in many countries over widening economic inequality, and the perception that trade has been bountiful for the executive class while leaving ordinary people behind.
In Britain, struggling communities used the June 2016 referendum that unleashed Brexit as a protest vote against the bankers in London who had engineered a catastrophic financial crisis, and who then forced regular people to absorb the costs through wrenching fiscal austerity.
In the United States, Mr. Trump’s political base has rallied to his trade war. In Italy, France and Germany, furious popular movements have fixed on trade as a threat to workers’ livelihoods, while embracing nationalist and nativist responses that promise to halt globalization.
“The era of freewheeling markets and liberalism is ending,” said Meredith Crowley, an international trade expert at the University of Cambridge in England. “People are dissatisfied with the complexity of policy and this feeling that those who have the levers of policy are somehow out of their reach.”
Economists see perils in this unfolding era, especially as governments champion national industries at the expense of competition. They point to history, notably the Great Depression, which was deepened by a wave of tit-for-tat trade protectionism kicked off by the United States through the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930.
The law sharply raised tariffs on a vast range of agricultural and factory goods, prompting American trading partners to respond. As world trade disintegrated, nationalist rage spread, culminating in the brutalities of World War II.
The British election, and the splintering of the European trading bloc, amounts to the most consequential upsurge of economic nationalism in generations.
“Since Smoot-Hawley, I don’t think we have seen something as dramatic as this,” said Swati Dhingra, an economist at the London School of Economics.
One major variable has gained clarity: Congressional Democrats and the Trump administration this week hailed an accord that clears passage of the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the deal that has allowed some $1.2 trillion worth of goods a year to be exchanged freely across the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Yet on another front, Mr. Trump has threatened to impose tariffs on imported automobiles, a step that would be especially disruptive in Germany, Europe’s largest economy. Germany sells far more goods to the United States than it imports, drawing the ire of the American president.
Mr. Trump has openly warned that he could cite a national security threat as justification for auto tariffs. Trade experts have derided that strategy as an affront to the norms of the international trading system.
Last month, Mr. Trump allowed a self-imposed deadline to lapse without imposing auto tariffs. But he has left a major international industry guessing about what happens next.
Since Britain shocked the world with its vote to abandon the European Union, its political institutions have tangled themselves in knots trying to decide what to do with their nebulous mandate to leave. Businesses have deferred hiring and investments, awaiting clarity on future trading terms.
The uncertainty has already exacted significant costs, and far beyond Europe, according to a new paper by Tarek Hassan, an economist at Boston University, and three European accounting experts, Stephan Hollander, Laurence van Lent and Ahmed Tahoun.
Every year since the referendum, the average company in Ireland — which trades heavily with Britain — has seen its growth in investment reduced by 4.2 percent, and hiring is 15 percent less than it otherwise would have been because of uncertainty, the paper concludes. Yet even across the Atlantic, the average American company has seen investment growth limited by 0.5 percent a year and hiring slowed by 1.7 percent.
“There is already a significant drop in employment as a result of the risks of Brexit,” Mr. Hassan said.
Some analysts suggested that the election enhanced the possibility that Mr. Johnson would pursue a softer form of Brexit, keeping Britain closer to the European market. His majority is so comfortable that he need not worry about alienating the hard-liners in his party who favor a clean break with Europe.
But some alteration now lies ahead. If Brexit uncertainty has been damaging, what replaces it is the near certainty of weaker economic growth and diminished living standards.
“It’s going to have massive implications,” Mr. Hassan said.