Tag Archives: George Cooper; Thomas Piketty

Rethinking Liberalism 4: taxing the wealthy

There is a growing view that”inequality is one of the main problems confronting the modern world. This is quite a change. Distribution of income or wealth (or indeed the difference between the two) was not a major concern in the previously dominant neoclassical economic world view. But now that the benefits of growth in the developed world go almost exclusively to a tiny elite, while median incomes stagnate, this view has become complacent. And the work of the French economist Thomas Piketty has drawn attention to the potential power of the very wealthy. This presents a major challenge for liberals.

The problem is that liberals should have no particular problem with inequality of income and wealth in their own right. We believe in individual responsibility and free choices. We have unequal economic outcomes because people want and choose different things. So what? In fact inequality is cover for a series of issues which liberals should care about. Today I am writing about one of them: the wealthy elite.

The problem is known colloquially as the “1%”, because a disproportionate share of developed world income is going to the top 1% (or 10%; or 0.1% depending on how you want to present the figures). Rather than providing evidence for this assertion, and how it specifically might apply to Britain (perhaps less than in some countries), I will take it as a given, and look at some of the issues of principle that it uncovers.

Why does it matter? To some it is a simple matter of social justice. Inequality is one thing, but the justification for these extremes is another. There is more than a suspicion that the lucky few are winning because of unfair advantages, rather than just ordinary luck and talent. But regardless of this is a further problem. This wealthy elite has the chance to consolidate its advantages with political influence, so as to rig the economy in its favour. The growing influence of big money in politics, and the enormous lobby industry in places like Washington DC, points in this direction. There is an economic problem too: excess wealth is deadweight. The wealthy do not consume as high a proportion of their income as poorer people. And only a small proportion of their savings get channelled into constructive investment  (paying people to build things) rather than various forms of speculation in pre-existing assets.

Why is the problem growing? It seems to be a case of a weakening middle. In other words it is not a question of rising poverty, but a hollowing out of the middle class. It is easy to see the culprits: technologies that automate medium-skilled jobs, and globalisation that weakens local bargaining power. Thus we have the problem: the economy becomes more productive, but the benefits do not go to most workers. Can this trend be reversed? That is a central challenge for progressive policymakers, and it is a question I will return to.

But if we take the trend as a given, which I fear we must, then what can be done about it? The answer is clear: redistribution via taxation, public services and transfers. This issue divides politics like no other. On the right, we have “economic liberals”, who think that lower taxes and smaller government will unleash economic growth that will benefit all of society. On the right we have what I will call progressives (not all liberal), who appreciate that with today’s skewed power structures such growth will only benefit an elite, and will in any case be undermined by the deadweight effect of excessive wealth. Like most Liberals, I am in the progressive camp here.

Apart from the deep flaws in the economic liberal logic, progressive thinkers can see something else. The state has no choice but to grow. We have signed up to a society which seeks to (more or less) guarantee minimum levels of access to health care and old-age pensions.  The aging of developed world populations will increase the burden of these. And much of the investment needed to keep a modern economy growing, from education to roads and bridges, requires some level of state support. Meanwhile the ability of the middle classes to fund their own needs through savings is under pressure – both because their own incomes are not keeping pace with inflation, and because returns on saving are diminishing, a little appreciated aspect of the “hollowing out” process – with the exception of those able to own property in prosperous parts of the country.

So this comes back a stark truth. Taxes on the rich must rise. This serves to recycle wealth that would otherwise drop out of productive economic flows, and it helps fund the basics the state has to provide. So how to do this? There are broadly three directions: income, assets and capital gains.

Until now, most of the argument has been over income taxes, and in particular the best top rate of tax. When I started my first accountancy job in 1976, the top rate of tax was 83%, which rose to 98% for investment income. Conventional wisdom turned against the wisdom of such high rates. They dropped to 60% and then to 40% in the UK, before rising to 50% in 2010, and then being clipped to 45%. Economists are less sure about the wisdom of cutting such high rates. They did think that cutting tax rates would mean that rates of pay (for the elite) would fall, as it was cheaper to provide the same net salary. In fact the opposite has happened. This seems to point to senior salaries being more about power politics than market forces. Companies paid their executives more because they could; they did not do so when tax rates were high, because they did not like to see so much of the extra money disappearing in tax.

I can see no harm in reinstituting the 50% top rate of tax, though experience suggests that this won’t bring in a huge amount of extra revenue. Such high rates create a tax avoidance industry. There is a problem with very high rates of income tax though: they tend to entrench a wealthy elite, because they make it more difficult for outsiders to join them. The way to become wealthy becomes to to inherit rather than earn. This was the rather interesting conclusion of a quite wonderful contemporary study of the British tax system of the 1970s by Mervyn King and John Kay – which was recommended as a model piece of economic writing 30 years later by the UCL Economics department.

So should we not look at taxing wealth? This is the recommendation of Mr Piketty, who worries that the rate of return on the elite’s assets is too high, and entrenches their dominance. Such a tax would probably be about 1 or 2% per annum – which may not sound much, but is enough to dent annual returns significantly. Such a tax exists in the Netherlands, hardly as basket-case economy. A variation on this general idea is just to tax land – an idea (Land Value Tax) that has an ancient history in the Liberal movement. I personally have a difficulty with taxing a theoretical value of an asset, rather than a realised one – given that the reliability of asset valuations is weakening. But I have to admit the idea is growing on me, especially the land-only version.

A further way of taxing assets is at death. This is theoretically very sound, but too easy to avoid in practice. The rates here can be very high. In order to make this more watertight such taxes should no doubt be applied to large gifts as well. This used to be the case in the UK. But taxing legacies and gifts seems to attract a particular political opprobrium, and we have to tread carefully.

Finally we should mention capital gains: where assets and incomes meet. These are the commonest loopholes in tax systems. Aligning such taxes with income tax seems the best way of dealing with this. But this may undermine the case for an asset tax: the Netherlands does not tax capital gains.

But in discussing such details we must not miss two big and interrelated issues. The first is that our elites tend to be globally mobile. Taxing them will require growing levels of transnational cooperation. And indeed the need to tax such mobile elites puts greater importance on such transnational cooperation. The EU’s tax dimension should grow. Such bodies as the G20 need to focus on the matter too. It is not particularly surprising that so many rich businessmen are in favour of the UK leaving the European Union.

Which brings me to the second issue: politics. The rich seem to be of an economically liberal mindset (which is actually a recent development, as this article in the New Yorker observes). They increasing fund political movements with an economically liberal agenda. This is already poisoning the politics of the USA. It will make taxing the wealthy harder. But not impossible. If the public understands that the alternative is to cut basic pension and health systems the economic liberals will lose. But whereas we used to think that politics in the developed world was getting dull, this growing clash of economic interests will inject real conflict into it. Class war is back.

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Reinventing liberal economics

CooperIn a recent post I expressed frustration that conventional economics seems to have survived the meltdown of 2008 almost unscathed, as evidenced the chatter around the discussion of monetary policy. I mentioned one book, George Cooper’s Money, Blood and Revolution, that sought challenge it. On the strength of that the publisher sent me a review copy – and I have read it. It is interesting because the paradigm shift Mr Cooper advocates gives coherence to the idea of liberal economics, after its original conception turned out to mean libertarian economics.

Mr Cooper’s main thesis is that economics is a science that is in crisis (as opposed to the alternative view that it should not be considered scientific at all). He compares it to four specific cases of sciences in crisis: astronomy before Copernicus, anatomy before William Harvey established the principles of blood circulation, biology before Darwin/Wallace’s idea of evolution by natural selection; and geology before the acceptance of continental drift. Nearly a third of the book is devoted to developing this idea, before he gets to the discipline of economics itself.

The geology example is close to my heart. My father is a geologist, and I studied it at my first stint at university, at Cambridge in 1976-78 (I studied History in my final year – another story). My father had accepted the idea of continental drift – the notion that the continents are moving across the surface of the earth – by the 1960s, before the scientific establishment completely accepted it. By 1976 the idea of plate tectonics was conventional wisdom, and continental drift was treated as an obvious fact. What had made the difference (actually not mentioned by Mr Cooper) is that mapping of the ocean floor showed that the oceans were spreading, neatly illustrated by stripes of different magnetic polarity, following reversals in the earth’s magnetic field when the ocean crust was formed. It was new, killer evidence.  Mr Cooper rather suggests that it was looking at existing evidence in a new way that led to the revolution. But that is a minor quibble – there was growing opinion behind the continental drift idea before the oceanographic evidence emerged.

The book is not a heavy read. It is less than 200 pages and it goes at quite a clip. It is well written, apart from a couple of quibbles. He uses the word “experimental” in place of “empirical” for real-world evidence. Perhaps his publisher advised him it was more accessible, but in my book experimental means carrying out experiments. There is a branch of experimental economics, but it is tiny. Empirical evidence in economics is gleaned from examining the shape of the real world, only rarely with controlled studies – a bit like astronomy, geology and evolutionary biology, in fact. His use of “principle” when he means “principal” looks accidental but I counted two instances.

This lightness of touch has advantages and disadvantages. It will help him with general readers; it will leave professionals picking holes. His focus is on the former since he judges that the demand for a paradigm shift is likely to be strongest from those outside the discipline. But we still need people in the discipline to flesh out the new ideas.

Moving on from the idea of scientific revolutions, Mr Cooper then explores the state of current economics, describing all the main schools of thought, each with ideas incompatible with others. I found this section illuminating and enjoyable. He could perhaps have brought out more the capacity for professional economists to engage in double-think – for the same people to hold incompatible ideas in their own heads, never mind the presence of warring factions who look on the same facts in different ways.

But Mr Cooper rightly says that it is not enough to prove the existing ideas wrong; you have to replace them with new ideas that work better. He outlines a new system of thought, based on two new concepts: competition and circulation of wealth.

Economists have much to say about competition, but it turns out that what they mean by the word is an artificial, anaemic version of the concept, operating within tightly constrained rules, where the object is to maximise individual welfare. The real human competition that drives human behaviour is about survival and status; it is about getting ahead of the other guy and staying there. Crucially it is about relative position and not absolute wealth. If competitive behaviour dominates, then human society will tend to stratify into a feudal system with a hereditary elite maintaining its dominance by force. Since such feudal societies are very common, including in newly developed social systems like that of North Korea, it is clear that such competition often dominant. It undermines the idea of libertarianism, which advocates minimal government and regulation, since these last two are required to counteract the tendency to feudalism.

Cooper’s second idea, that of circulation, stems from the observation that feudal societies are economically inefficient (look at North Korea again). Once the ruling elite have secured their status, they hold the rest of society in a static position so as not to present a threat. Economies are drained of vitality because the poor have no spending money, and the elite tend to hoard their wealth rather than spread it around. Democratic societies, on the other hand, have developed institutions, like progressive taxation, universal welfare and so on that recycle wealth from the wealthy to the rest, and competitive elections that ensure that political elites are recycled too. This creates a productive tension. Competition gives people the motivation to build successful businesses (and political careers) and innovate; governments recycle the wealth thus generated to prevent it from stifling the system.

This is a very liberal view. The right sees only a limited role for government and taxes, and does not accept that the presence of a very wealthy elite stifles the wellbeing of society. The left thinks that competition is destructive and tries to stifle it through excessive government. Liberals understand that people must be free to compete, but that government institutions are required to prevent all the power accumulating to the wealthy.

What does that mean in policy terms? Mr Cooper is particularly critical of the idea of monetarism – the management of the economy through regulating money and credit in the economy as a whole. He thinks this idea is largely to blame for the crisis, and it won’t help us out of it. The extra spending power it creates goes to the wrong people, i.e. the very wealthy. They either let the new cash fester unspent, or use it to create an asset bubble. Spending power needs to go the other end of society, which means Keynesian stimulus, focusing especially on productive investment. This sounds quite sensible. I am personally deeply sceptical of monetarism, though I don’t take the argument quite as far as Mr Cooper does.

How to take this new paradigm forward? It is starting to happen. Politicians and economists are talking a lot more about the distribution of wealth; this needs to be put back at the heart of macroeconomics – as it was two centuries ago with the ideas of Thomas Malthus. The publication of and interest generated by Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is big step in the right direction. This adds a lot of flesh to the high level analysis, and may provide the first evidence of magnetic stripes on the ocean floor.

But there is a problem at the heart of economics which Mr Cooper barely considers, and which has to fixed. It is the public’s insatiable desire for economic forecasts, both to gauge the general economic weather, and to answer what-if scenarios (such as global warming). So far the only practical way of delivering these is through the use of neoclassical models using the ideas of independent, rational agents, optimising behaviour and equilibrium. The whole infrastructure of these ideas has to be taught to economics students to satisfy this demand. It is no use just saying that forecasting is going to be more difficult. If the discipline is to be regarded as a science, then new methods must be developed. I suspect that economics has much to learn from weather forecasting – another system that is never allowed to achieve equilibrium. Weather forecasts require very big computers which are able to model complex interactions between many component parts. Work is needed on something similar – massive multi-agent models, using insights into real human behaviour.

Beyond that, I would like to see ideas on human behaviour, such as tendencies to cooperation and competition, developed in a much more realistic and nuanced context, harnessing the disciplines of anthropology, sociology and psychology – replacing the rather crude Darwinism that Mr Cooper advances.

That said, liberals everywhere should take Mr Cooper’s ideas seriously.

 

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