In Defense Of A Low Investment Tax

Matthew Yglesias gives the basics:

The main reason Romney’s effective rate is so low is that the American tax code contains a lot of preferences for investment income over labor income. That’s something that strikes many people as unfair on its face, and particularly unfair since it often means very low rates for extremely rich people like Rommey. And Rommey himself as a rich guy who’s also a member of the political party seen as favoring the rich, and who’s been recorded as whining that the working poor are undertaxed is perhaps not an ideal messenger for a defense of this policy.

But this is definitely an issue where the conservative position is in line with what most experts think is the right course, and Democrats are outside the mainstream.

The reasoning is basically this. You imagine two prosperous but not outrageously so working people living somewhere—two doctors, say, living in nearby small towns. They’re both pulling in incomes in the low six figures. One doctor chooses to spend basically 100 percent of his income on expensive non-durables. He goes on annual vacations to expensive cities and eats in a lot of fancy restaurants. The other doctor is much more frugal, not traveling much and eating modestly. Instead, he spends a lot of his money on hiring people to build buildings around town. Those buildings become houses, offices, retail stores, factories, etc. In other words, they’re capital. And capital earns a return, so over time the second doctor comes to have a much higher income than the first doctor.

So then there are too different scenarios:

— In the world where investment income isn’t taxed, the second doctor says to the first doctor “all those fancy vacations may be fun, but I’m being much more prudent. By saving for the future, I’ll be comfortable when it comes time to retire and will have plenty left over to give to my kids.”

— In the world where investment income is taxed like labor income, the first doctor says to the second “man you’re a sucker—not only are you deferring enjoyment of the fruits of your labor (boring) but when the money you’ve saved comes back to you, it gets taxed all over again. Live in the now.”

And the thinking is that world number one where people with valuable skills take a large share of their labor income and transform it into capital goods is ultimately a richer world than the world in which such people just go out to a lot of fancy dinners.

Quote Of The Day

“Kaplan also points out that the pay of those at the top of other highly-paid occupations has grown dramatically as well, like lawyers, athletes, and hedge fund managers. Here’s a figure showing the pay of top hedge fund managers relative to that of CEOs in the last decade. Kaplan writes: “The top 25 hedge fund managers as a group regularly earn more than all 500 CEOs in the S&P 500. In other words, while public company CEOs are highly paid, other groups with similar backgrounds and talents have done at least equally well over the last fifteen years to twenty years. If one uses evidence of higher CEO pay as evidence of managerial power or capture, one must also explain why the other professional groups have had a similar or even higher growth in pay. A more natural interpretation is that the market for talent has driven a meaningful portion of the increase in pay at the top.” — Economist Tim Taylor

The Union Goal Is To Make Firing More Difficult

Matthew Yglesias on what should be common sense:

…the idea that labor union objections to firing their members are fundamentally about evaluation metrics is extraordinarily naive. Under any possible evaluation scheme—whether for teachers, journalists, auto workers, basketball players, truck drivers, or what have you—the union is going to want to make it as difficult as possible to fire people. The idea of a labor union is to, among other things, represent the workforce’s interests and give voice to its desires. And in my experience people don’t want to get fired! In any kind of unionized workplace you see management pushing for more flexibility (i.e., ability to fire people) and the union pushing for more job securitiy (i.e., it’s easier to keep your job even if management decides you’re bad at it). 

The Logic Of The Left

My good friend Jon, one of the smartest leftists I know, argues that looting isn’t really so bad if you compare it to the legal “theft” done by Mitt Romney types:

Who is harmed when a TV is stolen from Best Buy? Not the person that made the TV. He’s in Mexico making $1 an hour or so and he has already been paid. Not the workers at Best Buy. Their salary doesn’t change. In an economy where corporations have record cash and only hire to meet the demand the people harmed are the investors. The poorest half of people in this country don’t own any stock, so they obviously are not harmed. By and large it’s the richest people in the world that are harmed when a poor person steals a TV from Best Buy.

Mitt Romney made $20 million in 2010 and he didn’t work. He’s the kind of guy that gets the largest share of the money due to the profits generated by workers. So you can kind of see why the right wing would want to shoot a black man for stealing a TV. He’s stealing from Mitt Romney, a super rich guy that won’t actually notice because he already has money coming out of his ears. But so what? Serving the needs of the rich is of prime importance.

Romney doesn’t actually “steal” because “stealing” means illegally taking something. He takes the value created by the Mexican factory worker, but it’s not stealing because it’s legal. Let’s say the Mexican worker is paid $5 to make a TV. Other costs related to delivering that TV to a buyer amount to maybe $300. The TV is actually sold for $1000. So Romney gets $695, even though he may have been asleep through the whole process.

Where to even begin with such a thought process? The economics, the moral arguments, even the assumptions are all wrong. I feel like our worldviews are so far apart that it would be fruitless to even try.  Although I have tried in the past, and indeed, it has proven to be fruitless. Now I have resigned to just pointing it out, chuckling, and just shaking my head. This, my readers, is the logic of the left.

Quote Of The Day

Richard Posner on the liberal daydream of working 20 hour weeks and enjoying more “leisure”:

The Skidelskys have an exalted conception of leisure. They say that the true sense of the word is “activity without extrinsic end”: “The sculptor engrossed in cutting marble, the teacher intent on imparting a difficult idea, the musician struggling with a score, a scientist exploring the mysteries of space and time — such people have no other aim than to do what they are doing well.” That isn’t true. Most of these people are ambitious achievers who seek recognition. And it is ridiculous to think that if people worked just 15 or 20 hours a week, they would use their leisure to cut marble or struggle with a musical score. If they lacked consumer products and services to fill up their time they would brawl, steal, overeat, drink and sleep late. English aristocrats in their heyday didn’t work, but neither did they cut marble or explore the mysteries of space and time. Hunting, gambling and seduction were their preferred leisure activities.

Americans value leisure, but it is expensive leisure, and so they have to work hard in order to pay for it. As a result they have less leisure time than if their preferred form of leisure were lying in a hammock, but on balance they obtain more pleasure.

The (Lack Of) Precision Of Drones

Surprisingly inaccurate:

 An in-depth, field-based investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (on behalf of the UK’s Sunday Times) found in February that “since Obama took office three years ago, between 282 and 535 civilians have been credibly reported as killed including more than 60 children.” The bureau notes that the drone attacks were started under the Bush administration in 2004 and have stepped up significantly under Obama. There had been 260 strikes by unmanned Predators or Reapers in Pakistan under Obama’s administration—averaging one every four days.

The report echoes the July 2009 estimates of Daniel L. Byman, senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy: “Sourcing on civilian deaths is weak and the numbers are often exaggerated, but more than 600 civilians are likely to have died from the attacks. That number suggests that for every militant killed, 10 or so civilians also died.”

The bureau reported another aspect of the drone attacks that is perhaps just as alarming as the raw numbers of innocent people they slaughter: it found that U.S. unmanned aircraft had killed dozens of civilians who had rushed to help other victims. A three-month investigation including eyewitness reports indicates that at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to the aid of others.

Quote from Ximena Ortiz, writing in The American Conservative here

Beverly Hills As The USA

Imagine that you lived in Beverly Hills, among the richest people in the United States. Some of your friends were the kids of executives at Fortune 500 companies. Others were the kids of famous Doctors, Lawyers, and some were the kids of hedge fund managers. While all relatively rich, assume there was quite a range of wealth from really rich, to filthy rich.

Further assume, that one day, a bleeding heart liberal starts feeling bad for the really rich. Her complaints are along the lines of: “The really rich can’t eat out at the $500/plate restaurants, they have to settle for the $100/plate restaurants, or, god forbid, make sandwiches at home”. Her complaints continue: “The really rich can’t afford the Lamborghini’s or Ferrari’s, they have to get by with the – GASP! – BMW’s and Mercedes Benz’s”. Worst yet, “the really rich actually have to live in mansions with no ocean view, or golf courses”. Most heartbreaking of all, “the really rich have to actually prioritize their lifestyle and set a budget. They can’t go to Europe on a moments notice, they can’t eat out everyday”.

Now further assume that said bleeding heart liberal decided to set up an “alleviate suffering” fund that took away from the filthy rich to give to the really rich. Such a fund would help equalize Beverly Hills and “bring people together”. But instead of making this fund voluntary, the bleeding heart liberal wanted to enforce this through the city. She wanted to make it a city tax that merely takes from the filthy rich and gives to the really rich. Her arguments, again, are to “alleviate suffering”.

What would your reaction be if you were suddenly transplanted to that society and debate? Would you support the “Beverly Hills tax”? I am not one of those that believes there are absolutely no circumstances that justify forcibly taking the wages of one to give to another. But such circumstances have to be met with atleast reasonable justification. Yet simply moving money around amongst the worlds richest people does not seem to me like an acceptable justification.

Such is the image that comes to mind whenever I have a discussion with a liberal about increasing redistribution via taxes to help the USA “poor”.  It’s the image my dad and uncles, who immigrated to the United States in their twenties from ranch life in the poorest parts of Mexico, gave me. It is certainly how they viewed me and my cousins growing up – no matter what our circumstances, be it growing up in Compton (as I did), living off of the income of mechanics, gardeners, or window tinters – we were all blessed beyond their wildest dreams. Where they had to eat tortillas off the dirt floor, work in fields in the scorching heat where there were no “sick days” or “vacation time”, even the McDonalds cashier can seem privileged. And this view isn’t far from reality. Even the “poor” in the United States are among the richest in the world (see here and here).

Marriage And Inequality

The connection:

Changes in family structure may explain anywhere from 15 to 40 percent of the increased inequality in recent decades. Readers may wonder why there is such a broad range of estimates. It depends on the time period examined, the income rungs examined, and assumptions about how much the absent parent might have brought into the household.

Mr. Western’s estimate that the rise in single parenthood explains 21 percent of the growth in inequality comes from a 2008 article in the American Sociological Review (with Christine Percheski and Deirdre Bloom). He examined the change from 1975 to 2005.

Gary Burtless looked at different years (1979 to 1996) for the European Economic Review but came up with the same figure: 21 percent. He also found that the increased tendency of educated people to marry each other accounted for another 13 percent of inequality’s growth.

The other estimate cited in the article comes from Robert Lerman of the Urban Institute. His unpublished analysis examines families with children at the 25th percentile and the 75th percentile. In 1975, the higher group had 2.16 times the income of the lower group. By 2008, it had risen to 3.09. Mr. Lerman estimated that 40 percent of that rise was the result of increasing single parenthood.

More can be found here. Economist Russ Roberts dives deeper into the data here.

Why So Little Lobbying?

University Of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan tries to answer the puzzle:

Some people have expressed dismay at the unprecedented amounts spent on 2012 political campaigns. But heightened political spending and other forms of political participation are an expected consequence of our more active government.

As explained by a pioneer in political economy research, Gordon Tullock, the real surprise about spending on campaigns and lobbying is how little it is compared with the amount of resources controlled by governments.

The federal government spends about $4 trillion every year, and state and local governments another $2 trillion, not to mention the resources these governments control through regulatory activities.

At the same time, estimates of aggregate campaign and lobbying spending are well below than 1 percent of total government spending. For example, analysis of filings under the Lobbying Disclosure Act finds that $3.5 billion was spent on lobbying in the year 2010.

Although economists have trouble explaining why observed lobbying spending is so little in total, economic analysis has been successful at explaining why there is more lobbying in California than, say, Vermont and why lobbying expenditure often peaks at the height of legislative activity. More is at stake.

For better or for worse, an active government begets lobbying activity.

Full post can be found here.

How Wal-Mart Helps The Poor

David Henderson gives an overview of a comprehensive study on Wal-Mart:

Using a difference-in-differences specification, our estimates suggest that a new Walmart store actually increases housing prices by between 2 and 3 percent for houses located within 0.5 miles of the store and by 1 to 2 percent for houses located between 0.5 and 1 mile.

Then there is this:

Phone surveys suggest that 84% of households in the U.S. shop at Walmart in a given year with 42% of households reporting to be regular Walmart shoppers (Pew Research Center, 2005). These surveys also show that lower-income households are more likely to shop at Walmart than upper-income households. In fact, Basker, (2005b), Hausman and Leibtag (2007), and Basker and Noel (2009) have shown that Walmart “Supercenters” that sell groceries offer many identical food items as other grocers at an average price that is substantially lower than their competitors. Hausman and Leibtag (2007) also find that these lower prices translate into a significant increase in consumer surplus.

More can be found here.

Quote Of The Day

” Walmart often faces strong local opposition when trying to build a new store. Opponents often claim that Walmart lowers nearby housing prices. In this study we use over one million housing transactions located near 159 Walmarts that opened between 2000 and 2006 to test if the opening of a Walmart does indeed lower housing prices. Using a difference-in-differences specification, our estimates suggest that a new Walmart store actually increases housing prices by between 2 and 3 percent for houses located within 0.5 miles of the store and by 1 to 2 percent for houses located between 0.5 and 1 mile.” — Economists Devin G. Pope and Jaren C. Pope

Food Shortages In Venezuela

The New York Times writes:

Venezuela is one of the world’s top oil producers at a time of soaring energy prices, yet shortages of staples like milk, meat and toilet paper are a chronic part of life here, often turning grocery shopping into a hit or miss proposition.

Some residents arrange their calendars around the once-a-week deliveries made to government-subsidized stores like this one, lining up before dawn to buy a single frozen chicken before the stock runs out. Or a couple of bags of flour. Or a bottle of cooking oil.

The shortages affect both the poor and the well-off, in surprising ways. A supermarket in the upscale La Castellana neighborhood recently had plenty of chicken and cheese — even quail eggs — but not a single roll of toilet paper. Only a few bags of coffee remained on a bottom shelf.

Asked where a shopper could get milk on a day when that, too, was out of stock, a manager said with sarcasm, “At Chávez’s house.”

At the heart of the debate is President Hugo Chávez’s socialist-inspired government, which imposes strict price controls that are intended to make a range of foods and other goods more affordable for the poor. They are often the very products that are the hardest to find.

Maybe this is why you don’t see lefties singing the Hugo Chavez praise anymore? Is it time yet for a little “I Told You So”?

Austan Goolsbee Is Blogging

His blog can be found here.

Quote Of The Day

“Suppose you start a new charity to provide free haircuts for hippies. You only manage to raise the money to pay for three haircuts a year. The Prisoners’ Dilemma might explain why people aren’t more generous with their money in general. But the Prisoners’ Dilemma doesn’t explain why the other charities raise so much more money than yours. If you ask “Why don’t people give more money to my charity?,” the best answer is that people hold your charity in low esteem. Similarly, if total donations to the U.S. government add up to a few million dollars a year, the best explanation is that people see lots of better ways to spend not just their dollars, but their charitable dollars.” – Bryan Caplan, on what people giving so little of their charity money to government says about their views on government efficiency

Quote Of The Day

This sort of giveaway may be good politics, but it’s terrible policy. Extending the programme just one year would cost $6 billion. The measure is promoted as a way of making college more affordable, but it will mainly benefit those well out of school, many of whom are relatively well-to-do, mid-career professionals, such as your indebted correspondent. There is a movement afoot to get the government to forgive student-loan debt entirely, and when compared to this, the cost of the scheme to keep student-loan interest rates low looks quite small. Stilll, it’s bad policy for many of the same reasons it would be bad policy to forgive student loans. If we’re going to hand out this $6 billion next year, it would be better all ’round to hand it to the people who need it most. If we think it more important to spend this dough on education, then we should hand out the $6 billion in the form of scholarships to deserving prospective collegians of modest means, to help them earn their degrees without having to take out any loans at all.” — Will Wilkinson 

Quote Of The Day

“Second, the argument that elites are generally opposed to government involvement in the economy reveals the very US-centric focus of Krugman and Wells. Even a perfunctory look at recent or distant history (or at our book!) should have been enough to convince one that in most societies, even in the supposedly laissez-faire 19th century Britain, elites work very hard to make the government intervene in the economy — of course, in a very specific way, to support them. It should thus be no surprise that extractive institutions are rarely built on the foundations of laissez-faire economics — think of slavery, labor draft systems such as the mita, government monopolies, institutions such as the “colour bar” in South Africa designed to keep blacks disadvantaged and forced to supply cheap labor, and government corruption.” — Economists DARON ACEMOGLU AND JAMES ROBINSON, blogging at Why Nations Fail