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Wealth and Taxes, Part V - Barokong

Wealth and Taxes Part V -- it's all about politics

(This is Part V of a series. See the overview for a summary of the other four)

So if wealth is not the answer to "how big is inequality," by any sensible measure, and if the wealth tax is not the answer to "what's the best way to raise money, or to redistribute income,"  if in fact wealth and wealth taxes are terrible answers to these questions, what is the question to which the wealth tax is the answer, and alarmist measures of wealth inequality to buttress it the pathway?

It's right there clear as day inSaez and Zucman's  Jan 22 2019 New York Times Oped

Their [high marginal tax rates] root justification is not about collecting revenue...high tax rates for sky-high incomes do not aim at funding Medicare for All. They aim at preventing an oligarchic drift that, if left unaddressed, will continue undermining the social compact and risk killing democracy.
An extreme concentration of wealth means an extreme concentration of economic and political power… Democracy or plutocracy: That is, fundamentally, what top tax rates are about.
Well, now we have at least an honest question to which confiscatory taxation is the answer.

  • The point of the wealth tax is to destroy the supposed political power of billionaires by destroying their wealth.
We could have saved a lot of time and effort if we had just started there and not wasted time on phony economic arguments!

Economic distortions are a feature not a bug. In optimal taxation theory we try to find taxes that raise revenue and don't kill the golden goose that lays eggs. The whole point here is to kill the golden goose.

  • The wealth tax is successful when it raises no revenue, when it destroys the wealth subject to tax.
Even more clearly:

That few people [in the 1960s] faced the 90 percent top tax rates was not a bug; it was the feature that caused sky-high incomes to largely disappear.
Is your jaw dropping yet?

(The quote is also a... misleading statement. 90 percent tax rates madereported incomes disappear and tax shelters explode.)

In optimal tax theory, the point is to get resources without disincentives -- to tax the rich without discouraging people from becoming rich, so they can get rich and pay the taxes. Here the point is exactly the opposite. They want to tax billionaires to the point that there are no billionaires.

  • The point of the wealth tax is to destroy the incentive to become rich.

Why? If you view all wealth as ill-gotten, basically criminal, as perversions of democracy then you want to destroy the incentive to engage in those nefarious activities.

Well, no wonder we've been arguing and getting nowhere! As usual we're starting from different premises.

Saez and Zucman are not particularly consistent, arguing in many other places that the wealth tax will raise lots of revenue rather than just destroy wealth. They advise Senator Warren who has made big revenues a central part of her policy agenda. She wants the wealth tax precisely to fund Medicare for all, which Saez and Zucman just said is not the point. I find that sort of inconsistency very annoying, and telling of a political agenda which they're not willing to state honestly in many circles.

  • Will the real wealth tax please stand up? Is it supposed to raise a lot of revenue, or is it supposed to get rid of billionaires, after which it will raise no revenue? Make up your minds, please.
An amusing aside

"The view that excessive income concentration corrodes the social contract has deep roots in America — a country founded, in part, in reaction against the highly unequal, aristocratic Europe of the 18th century."
I guess I can forgive two Frenchmen for being a little foggy on American history. Our revolution had a lot to do with paying British taxes, not guillotining the aristocracy. In modern language, Americans wanted opportunity, not redistribution. The Boston Tea Party was not a demand that Britain tax its aristocrats, either to send money instead of tea, or just to tax them out of existence because "inequality" was galling the Americans.  The American Revolution was run by the wealthiest in this country, and was if anything about keeping property, including slaves.

Do billionaires really run the country?

We have left economics long ago, but does this idea make any sense? This is a mantra of the extreme left. John Cassidy, writing in the New Yorker to cheer these ideas

Meanwhile, the Citizens United ruling, the rise of super pacs, and the lurch to the right of the Republican Party and, of course, the Trump Presidency have demonstrated the growing political power of the billionaire class.
I'm scratching my head here. Just what billionaires are they worried about? Tom Steyer? Michael Bloomberg? George Soros? Bill Gates, devoting his billions to global charities? The Business Roundtable CEOs who endorsed "stakeholder capitalism" as fast as you can say "Warren just passed Biden in the polls?" The readers of the New Yorker? (Look at their ads and the NYT Style section. They don't run ads like that on Fox News!) Pete Buttigieg's wine-cave buddies? It strikes me that the billionaires in this country are by and large achingly progressive coastal elites. (see Ryan Bourne at Cato "Has Wealth Inequality Eroded U.S. Democracy" for numbers showing political preferences of the very rich.)

That billionaires bought Trump the election is simply untrue. Chris Edwards and Ryan Bourne:

not one CEO in the Fortune 100 had donated to Trump’s election campaign by September 2016. His victory did not stem from influence by the wealthy but more from grassroots opposition to wealthy coastal elites.
The money was on Hilary Clinton, who spent nearly double what Trump did. I perceived Clinton, famous for Goldman-Sachs speeches, as just the kind of candidate one who dislike cronyism should worry about.

Well, dark conspiracy theories are hard to disprove. But at least now you know what worldview leads, logically (at last) from its premises to a wealth tax. You can decide if you buy these premises. It has, by admission, nothing to do with revenue, and little to do with economics.

The argument goes on that billionaires have too much "economic power." Progressives are great with language, and you usually see wealth "controlled" by the 1% not just "owned," or heaven forbid "earned" by the 1%. I will leave to your imaginations just what that means.  If you have a billion dollars in treasury bills and the Vanguard index fund, just what "power" does that give you?

A wealth tax would also be a dandy way to bring billionaires in, with their tax lawyers, accountants, lobbyists, and favorite congresspeople for a once-a-year trip to the confessional, to discuss how the IRS will value various complex entities, along with their twitter accounts, charitable and campaign contributions, and just how their businesses are doing on advancing the green new deal and diversity and equity programs. As long as we are scratching our heads trying to find the question to which the wealth tax is the answer, this is a pretty good one.

Off with their heads!

The world-view is expressed even more clearly by Bernie Sanders:

or perhaps George Bernard Shaw

“The more I see of the moneyed classes, the more I understand the guillotine.”
The point really is decapitation. "Inequality"  is (Saez and Zucman) such a "crisis" that we are better off just getting rid of billionaires, even if that means throwing all their wealth and the businesses that provide their income in the ocean. While it is often pointed out that any concern with inequality means are better off if a rich person loses $100 and a poor person loses $1, this is a pretty extreme version of that view.

Ill-gotten wealth

A second argument lies behind the wealth tax: it's all ill-gotten money, or luck. Zucman and Saez again

progressive income taxation... restrains all exorbitant incomes equally, whether they derive from exploiting monopoly power, new financial products, sheer luck or anything else…
Can you think of a few anything elses' that are missing here?

Robert Reich opines that there are only five ways to make a billion dollars

" exploit a monopoly;...get insider information unavailable to other investors,... buy off politicians,...extort big investors,...get the money from rich parents or relatives."
Just who made their iPhones, I'd like to know?

Edwards and Bourne document much more extensively a view more consistent with my reading of the facts,

Most of today’s wealthy are business people who built their fortunes by adding to economic growth, and some have created major innovations that benefit all of us. The share of the wealthy who inherited their fortunes has sharply declined in recent decades
In particular, the Piketty story of centuries old inherited wealth growing at r>g is a fable. The rich are not getting richer. All of today's rich are nouveau. At best, this generation's self-made internet gazilloinaires and hedge fund managers made more money than the last generation's Waltons and bond traders.

There is an element of truth, as in all fables. Edwards and Bourne go on,

...cronyism, which refers to insiders and businesses securing narrow tax, spending, and regulatory advantages. Cronyism is one cause of wealth inequality, and it has likely increased over time as the government has grown.
The really big billionaires -- google, Facebook, apple, etc. -- unquestionably built tremendous products, and pocketed a tiny fraction of the resulting benefit. But there is a lot of cronyism and exploiting government-granted monopolies in the US economy for sure. The epi-pen story is not isolated. Banking, courtesy of Dodd-Frank barriers to entry. Health care. We can grant that Vladimir Putin did not get wealthy from an innovative tech startup.

But to the extent that wealth is amassed by exploiting regulations, regulatory barriers to entry, special favors from the government, tax deals, is more government really the answer? How is it that the politically connected super wealthy can get massive breaks from corporate taxes (how Reich thinks the Koch brothers made their money), but they won't get, well, massive breaks from the wealth tax? If too much government is the problem, inviting cronies to lobby for government to use its power on their behalf, just how is more government the answer? Bloody Marys don't work for a hangover.

Well, at least now we know what we're talking about. If you live on the Saez, Zucman, Reich planet, and you think destroying billionaires' wealth won't ruin your business too or deny you the benefits of economic growth, and you think that their politicians can operate a confiscatory tax regime without opening the same crony Pandora's box that they claim cause the problem in the first place, you like the wealth tax.

At least they should stop the pretense this has anything to do with revenue, economics,  optimal taxation, expanding economic opportunity for the lower end of America, and so forth. As Warren advisers, they might want to inform her before the next debate, ah, this is not about raising revenue. And we should stop falling for this trap as well, and wasting our time on part I-IV arguments.

Bottom line

I want to end on  two positive notes. I started all this with a discussion ofSmith, Owen, and Zwick. As we saw in part I it cleans up some of the egregious thumbs on scale in Saez and Zucman, and taught me just how fraught the whole "capitalization" idea to measure wealth is. It's a good example of an industry of papers that quickly tore apart the Saez Zucman numbers.

But I fault Smith, Owen and Zwick, and most of their fellows, for meekly taking the questions at face value. Their paper  "builds on the pioneering work of Saez and Zucman (2016)." They "follow Saez and Zucman (2016) in defining wealth." They calculate static revenues from a wealth tax. But we just found out that this was all a red herring as the point is to destroy wealth not tax it. They offer nothing to question the idea that if this definition of "wealth" has become more unequal, "policy" should do something about it.   One can at least point to a literature, such as Edwards and Ryan, that do question the question, or Saez and Zucman's own opeds that suggest a very different set of questions.

Thus, I fault this paper, and its companions, for taking the questions at face value. You see the  agenda.  You’re being suckered into a rope-a-dope. The right response is that this is the wrong question, an utterly silly question, and one can at least say that.

This series is really about conciliation. Unlike other economists, I don't want to presume we're all asking the same question and Saez and Zucman are dummies. I want to respect that they are smart, so if they are coming to a different answer, it must be because they have a different question. In today's post, we now have a set of world views that does at last have some logic, which one can debate. In that spirit, I close with a Saez quote which which I agree completely:

"My sense is really that the public will favor more progressive taxation only if it is convinced that top income gains are detrimental to economic growth of the 99%, and that taxation can ameliorate this. In America, people do not have a strong view against inequality per se, as long as inequality is fair. And what does fair mean? As an economist, you would say fair means that individual income and wealth reflect the value of what people produce or otherwise contribute to the economic system. This is why distinguishing between the standard supply side scenario versus the rent-seeking scenario is so important."
Amen, brother Saez. And, if rent-seeking is the problem, explain to us how an enormous wealth tax will not attract the same rent-seekers who game the obscene income, corporate, and estate taxes today.

In the end, this is all about power. Sure, let's call it "economic power" as well as political power. Saez and Zucman want to transfer power from private hands to the government, and eliminate a potential source of power, a source of competition to the incumbent government.

Whether that is a good idea depends essentially on your view of just how bad private vs. government power is. I'm a (many adjectives) libertarian, and I see even in the worst excesses of private power some discipline of competition or potential competition restraining it. I see most private power as given to the powerful by government in exchange for political support, which is really an expression of government power to suppress that competition.  The defining character of government power islack of competition and a monopoly of force. The essence of Saez and Zucman is to reduce the competition for power faced by whoever runs the government.  Historically, I see the damage of extreme government power -- Soviet and Chinese Communism, German Nazism -- as orders of magnitude worse than even the worst caricatures of private power, especially of private power that does not derive ultimately from or require support from state power -- perhaps the Victorian dark satanic mills?

I presume Saez and Zucman agree they don't want to hand massive power to this administration, or a Republican Congress, or maybe even to the branch of the Democratic Party that handed out the cronyist goodies to billionaires they decry. So the argument must be that the "good politicians" will take over, will stay in power, will arrange never to hand the reins to a future Trump, and this time they will not misuse a monopoly of power, made ever stronger by lack of private economic or political power to challenge it.  Just put us bien-pesants in charge and all will be well.

I'm dubious of anyone making that claim, made so often in the past. I don't favor a libertarian dictatorship either.

They claim to worry about "inequality." Many government-run states -- Cuba, say, or Soviet Russia -- had much less measured income inequality. But if this is really all about "power," we should not fail to note that those states had much more inequality of power. Stalin may not have reported a lot on his income taxes, but he essentially owned a whole country.

More

Chris Edwards and Ryan Bourne at Cato have a nice series on inequality issueshere (study, alsopdf)here (blog post). Ryan also takes on the final question that this series builds to,Has wealth inequality eroded democracy?

TheSaez Summers Mankiw debate is informative.  See also Summers and Natasha Sarin on the wealth tax. If you're following politics, this really is about the soul of the Democratic Party and its economic views, Summers vs. Saez-Zucman as it is about Biden vs. Warren, Sanders, AOC.

My Hoover colleague David Henderson wrote a nice blog post on the topic, including coverage of the  debate.

"Emmanuel Saez... made his case for a tax on wealth and claimed that the wealthy have disproportionate influence on economic policy. In a segment that is beautiful to see (from about the 1:07:00 point to the 1:09:30  in this forum), Larry Summers challenged Saez to give an example where reducing wealthy people’s wealth by 20 percent would produce better political, social, or cultural decisions. Summers to Saez: “You’ve been making this argument for years. Do you have one example?” Saez didn’t. Summers went on to make the point that very wealthy people can have large influence by spending a trivial percentage of their wealth. Even heavy taxes on wealth would leave them quite wealthy."
"In his earlier presentation on the panel, Summers made another important point. He considered three activities that wealthy people engage in.  Activity A is continuing to invest it productively. Activity B is consuming it—for  example, by hiring a big jet and taking their friends to a nice resort. Activity C is donating it to causes and, if the causes are political, having even larger influence on political causes than they have now. Both B and C are ways to avoid a tax on wealth; A is not."
Interestingly, in the above oped, Saez did have examples, like the interesting claim that Russia became oligarchic and Japan did not (?) because Russia wasn't taxing enough. I would have been interested to hear Larry's response to that one.

From Nihai Krishan in the Washington Examiner

Larry Summers... has called Saez and Zucman’s estimates for the revenues generated by the wealth tax “naively high.” One possibility is that, instead of paying the tax, the ├╝ber-wealthy would strategically give their money away to charities, reducing the tax base. "It seems important to account for the fact that the wealthy (and their tax planners) will inevitably be motivated to limit tax liability," Summers and another professor argued in an opinion piece in the Washington Post
Larry and the rest of us need to read the NYT oped and understand that low revenue is the point. Of course, Saez and Zucman could be more consistent about that.

The prevalence of non-profits as a tax-avoidance device, and their increasingly political nature, is a topic worth exploring. There is a reason every billionaire and sports star has a charity, that among other things employs his or her relatives and associates.

Gerald Auten and David Spilinter's analysis is an important recent piece in the data discussion.

"Top income share estimates based only on individual tax returns, such as Piketty and Saez (2003), are biased by tax-base changes, major social changes, and missing income sources.... Our results suggest that top income shares are lower than other tax-based estimates, and since the early 1960s, increasing government transfers and tax progressivity resulted in little change in after-tax top income shares."
Chris Edwards passed along a number of good links. Like me, Chris is worried about cronyism, and has good opedshere andhere  acknowledging that "the democrats are partially right." He points to the logical fallacy though -- just because some people earned money this way does not mean that all rich people did. And, we can agree on the disease but disagree on the treatment. If a government running a complex tax system open to cronyism is the problem, it does not follow that more government running an even more complex tax system is the answer. Chris also has a nice analysis of the wealth and capital income taxes and Alan Reynolds on tax elasticities

Update: Thanks to commenters and correspondents who fixed some little errors.

A good friend passes on a lovely quip:  "If ever there was an example of policy-based evidence-making, the case for the wealth tax is it."

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