The Changing Justification for Tax Cuts: From Efficiency to Fairness

24 04 2011

The Changing Justification for Tax Cuts: From Efficiency to Fairness

Matt Yglesias has posted something interesting about the ongoing debate in the US about tax cuts for the wealthy. He notes that people on the right of the political spectrum traditionally defended tax cuts for the wealthy on the grounds that they would spur economic growth. In effect, they were asking voters to trade the principle of economic equality away for higher economic growth. The famous trickle-down metaphor said that the best way to help the poor was to invigorate the economy with a bit more inequality.

There is more and more empirical evidence that the Reaganite formula for economic growth (cut taxes and regulation) doesn’t actually work. Much of this evidence, I am proud to say, has come from the discipline of economic history. There is a great deal of evidence of the suggest that there isn’t necessarily at trade-off between growth and equity. For most of human history, massive inequality was a fact of life: there was a huge gap between the peasants and the wealthy in Elizabethan England, but this sure didn’t produce modern economic growth. Even during the British Industrial Revolution, the rate of economic growth in Britian was pretty slow by today’s standard, less than 1% per year. Really rapid economic growth only became common in the Western world at roughly the time these countries were starting to create welfare states. In the 30 years after 1945, when there was consensus in favour of fairly generous welfare states in the United States and other Western countries, economic growth was rapid. Income tax rates for the wealthy were sky high in 1950s America, but this didn’t keep the US from enjoying tremendous prosperity. Presumably there was enough inequality in Eisenhower’s America to encourage the Don Drapers of the world to work hard.  The period since the late 1970s, which saw the erosion of the redistributive state in most Western countries (as represented by Reaganite tax cuts, Thatcher, Prop 13, etc.), also saw a slow-down in economic growth and technological progress.

So now that the economic argument in favour of cutting taxes for the rich has been shot to hell, the right’s justification for tax cuts has shifted from economic efficiency to equity: the right is now arguing in favour of tax cuts for the wealthy on the grounds of fairness.

Yglesias summarizing the new argument coming from right-wing figures such as Arthur Brooks, Yglesias writes:

It’s not that higher taxes on our Galtian Overlords would backfire and make us worse off. It’s just that it would be immoral of us to ask them to pay more taxes even if doing so would, in fact, improve overall human welfare.

Two days ago, the Center for American Progress in DC in hosted a public forum with leading economists and policy experts to discuss the proposition that a focus on equity and economic inclusion is necessary to grow the U.S. economy. In the companion framing paper titled “Is Equity the Superior Growth Model?” authors Sarah Treuhaft from PolicyLink and David Madland from American Progress discuss how economic growth has been slower and less broadly shared over the past several decades, leaving more and more families, even entire communities, behind with diminishing prospects for catching up. Let me quote from their excellent paper at length:

Economists have long considered the relationship between equity and economic growth. Early economic thinking was heavily shaped by Simon Kuznets, a Nobel Prizewinning economist, who argued that economic inequality increases while a country is developing, and then after a certain average income is attained, inequality begins to decrease. His explanation for this pattern was that shifting from agriculture to industry caused inequality to rise but further growth led to increased economic opportunities as well as equalizing government policies.

Kuznets Curve

Kuznets Curve


This argument and its graphical representation—the inverted U-shaped Kuznets curve—suggested that inequity was good for economic growth, at least at the early stages of development. Alas, overwhelming evidence has accumulated that development does not quite work like Kuznets predicted.

Many countries have not become first less and then more equal as they develop. Instead, there have been a wide variety of development patterns, with some countries growing relatively equally at all points in their development and others growing unequally at all points in their development, and still others vacillating between relatively equal and unequal. South Korea, for example, has seen relatively equitable economic growth throughout the past 60 years as it developed from a relatively poor country to a middle-upper-income country. Brazil, historically one of the most inequitable countries, has in very recent years begun to grow more equally. And in the United States, from the 1940s to the 1970s, economic growth went with increased equality, but since the 1970s, additional growth has reduced equity.

The real world has not conformed to the Kuznets curve. Still, the idea that there is a tradeoff between growth and equity did not just go away. Instead, it remained influential, even for advanced countries, though the hypothesis was largely untested.

Read more here.

Update: Krugman has commented on Yglesias’s post. See here also.





Bliss on Taxation in Canada (Nostalgianomics)

18 02 2010

Michael Bliss, who is one of Canada’s most accomplished historians, has published a piece in the Globe and Mail calling for Canada’s system of taxation to be made more progressive. I really admire Bliss’s work as a historian and he makes an interesting case in this op-ed piece, but there are some ideas lurking in his piece that I cannot let pass without comment.

Bliss writes: “Inequality of compensation has soared in our time, as the rich have become much richer and much less taxed. Higher taxes on high incomes would begin to narrow the immense chasm that has opened up between the über-rich and the ordinary North American. If properly applied, they could put an end to the frustrating debate about the obscene salaries and bonuses that we pay not only to flailing financiers but to mediocre professional athletes.”

There is no such country as North America. Canada and the United States are very different countries when it comes to inequality. One common measure of income inequality is the Gini coefficient.  The most egalitarian society in the world is Denmark, with where the Gini coefficient is 24.7, according to the UN stats. In Canada, the Gini coefficient is 32.6. This makes Canada’s distribution of income somewhat more egalitarian than in France, Australia, the United Kingdom and far more egalitarian than in the United States, where the Gini coefficient is 40.8. Moreover, while the level of inequality in the USA has increased dramatically since the 1970s, it has remained roughly the same in Canada. Anyway, the divergence is partly a function of different economies producing different distributions of pre-tax incomes (there are lots of well-paying jobs for male high-school graduates in Canada) and partly because of different tax regimes (read Geoffrey Hales’s excellent book on this subject). Executive compensation is also lower in Canada than in the USA. My point is that we can’t say that the same trends are at work on both sides of the border.

“From 1945 to the 1960s, the United States and Canada experienced what appears to be a golden age of affluence, growth and, by our standards, increasing social equality.”

The  relatively egalitarian distribution of incomes in the US between the New Deal and the 1973 oil shock was due to a conjunction of factors that simply aren’t present today. Tax policy is just one of them. The world is more globalized (as workers in Flint, Michigan will tell you), the labour movement and the big Chandlerian corporations have declined, technology has automated certain formerly well-paying jobs out of existence, there is more immigration from low-wage countries, and gender roles are massively different. Bliss’s piece reminds me of Paul Krugman’s nostalgia for the relatively egalitarian society of the United States of his childhood. As critics have pointed out, Krugman’s “nostalgianomics” overlooks important flaws of 1950s American society (very limited immigration, women being kept out of a workforce).

We watched an episode of Mad Men last night. Neither I nor my wife would want to live in the society Krugman and Bliss appear to regard as some sort of golden age.

Canada’s egalitarianism is generally a good thing (it makes muggings less common), but it also has some drawbacks that we should acknowledge too. For one thing, it probably makes university students less competitive.  I also suspect that it is one of the reasons why the expected rate of return on investment in a university degree is lower in Canada than in the United States.

Update: I have been asked by a reader to back up my claim that the ROI on a university degree in Canada is lower than in the US. This OECD data shows that the present value of a degree is lower, which certainly suggests that the ROI is lower.

2009 OECD Report on Education, “Education at a Glance” Chart A8.1. Economic returns for an individual obtaining upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education, ISCED 3/4, and for an individual obtaining tertiary education

“The chart depicts the present value of an investment’s future cash flows net of  the initial investment,  discounted by 5% interest rate. Investments in tertiary education generate substantial financial rewards in most OECD countries. Male students in Italy, Portugal and the United States can expect to gain more than USD150 000 over their working lives by investing in tertiary education. The returns for female tertiary students exceed USD 100 000 in Korea and Portugal. With few exceptions, the returns for investing in a tertiary education are higher than for upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education… For males the returns are USD 81 000 compared with USD 40 000 and for females USD 51 000  compared with USD 26 000. Incentives to continue education on a tertiary level are thus strong for males and females in most countries.”

Direct cost Foregone earnings Gross earnings benefits Net present value of a post-secondary degree
Country Male Female Male Female Male Female Male Female
Australia -2,810 -2,810 -22,021 -22,719 73,492 70,932 49,482 25,782
Austria -2,032 -2,032 -38,001 -36,463 146,283 103,739 62,805 33,435
Belgium -1,441 -1,441 -32,999 -28,338 63,700 91,261 13,659 37,145
Canada -2,161 -2,161 -23,450 -24,386 91,065 71,299 53,918 37,540
Czech Republic -1,722 -1,722 -15,426 -14,635 44,843 50,019 63,524 55,584
Denmark -578 -578 -27,078 -27,534 111,279 82,278 23,587 2,828
Finland -138 -138 -22,955 -22,309 50,777 32,073 10,432 -2,020
France -2,119 -2,119 -30,492 -27,181 41,450 44,826 5,284 8,081
Germany -5,085 -5,085 -27,421 -27,631 51,356 109,920 19,134 32,039
Hungary -577 -577 -15,805 -15,024 38,406 39,545 15,046 19,029
Ireland -599 -599 -29,199 -28,740 66,937 76,038 31,618 35,058
Italy -1,114 -1,114 -35,954 -30,570 89,302 75,509 21,487 30,417
Korea -2,865 -2,865 -11,898 -11,980 68,412 4,787 50,950 -12,011
New Zealand -3,113 -3,113 -28,129 -27,056 83,873 75,997 31,051 11,511
Norway -2,372 -2,372 -33,342 -33,625 133,548 83,842 84,606 27,123
Poland -194 -194 -9,622 -8,202 31,601 40,648 27,137 31,933
Portugal -11 -11 -20,562 -16,867 123,842 88,143 62,570 50,158
Spain -481 -481 -5,925 -4,348 52,086 45,557 37,604 48,136
Sweden -19 -19 -19,592 -21,107 93,464 69,113 43,505 23,900
Turkey -324 -324 -10,837 -11,750 37,719 48,598 16,308 15,126
United States -2,689 -2,689 -21,168 -21,572 180,543 126,069 112,929 81,889
AVG -1,545 -1,545 -22,946 -22,002 79,713 68,104 39,840 28,223

The other interesting stat I would like to share is that ROI on a university education appears to be increasing. I know the cost of education has gone up a bit, but the earnings premium of college graduates has skyrocketed, at least in the United States. As globalization has accelerated and more manual labour jobs have been sent offshore, the gap between what a university graduate can earn and the earnings of high school graduates has opened up. Let me quote a recent report from the US College Board:

“The earnings premium for college education has increased over time:
Among men, the earnings premium for a college degree increased from 19 percent in 1975, to
37 percent in 1985, 56 percent in 1995, and 63 percent in 2005.
The earnings premium for women is larger—70 percent in 2005. It was 47 percent in 1985, but
has not increased since 1995.”

Anyway, I should get back to work….