Who are the job creators?

JDN 2456956 PDT 11:30.

For about 20 years now, conservatives have opposed any economic measures that might redistribute wealth from the rich as hurting “job creators” and thereby damaging the economy. This has become so common that the phrase “job creator” has become a euphemism for “rich person”; indeed, when Paul Ryan was asked to define “rich” he stumbled over himself and ended up with “job creators”. A few years ago, John Boehner gave a speech saying that ‘the job creators are on strike’. During his presidential campaign, Mitt Romney said Obama was ‘waging war on job creators’.

If you get the impression that the “job creator” narrative is used more often now than ever, you’re not imagining things; the term was used almost as many times in a single month of Obama’s presidency than it was in George W. Bush’s entire second term.

This narrative is not just wrong; it’s utterly ludicrous. The vision seems to be something like this: Out there somewhere, beyond the view of ordinary mortals, there lives a race of beings known as Job Creators. Ours is not to judge them, not to influence them; ours is only to appease them so that they might look upon us with favor and bestow upon us our much-needed Jobs. Without these Jobs, we will surely die, and so all other concerns are secondary: We must appease the Job Creators.

Businesses don’t create jobs because they feel like it, or because they love us, or because we have gone through the appropriate appeasement rituals. They don’t create jobs because their taxes are low or because they have extra money lying around. They create jobs because they see profit in it. They create jobs because the marginal revenue of hiring an additional worker exceeds the marginal cost.

And of course they’ll gladly destroy jobs for the exact same reasons; if they think the marginal cost exceeds the marginal revenue, out come the pink slips. If demand for the product has fallen, if the raw materials have become more expensive, or if new technology has allowed some of the labor to be cheaply automated, workers will be laid off in the interests of the company. In fact, sometimes it won’t even be in the interests of the company; corporate executives are lately in the habit of using layoffs and stock buybacks to artificially boost the value of their stock options so they can exercise them, pocket the money, and run away as the company comes crashing to the ground. Because of market deregulation and the ridiculous theory of “shareholder value” (as though shareholders are the only ones who matter!), our stock market has changed from a system of value creation to a system of value extraction.

What actually creates jobs? Demand. If the demand for their product exceeds the company’s capacity to produce it, they will hire more people in order to produce more of the product. The marginal revenue has to go up, or companies will have no reason to hire new workers. (The marginal cost could also go down, but then you get low-paying jobs, which isn’t really what we’re aiming for.) They will continue hiring more people up until the point at which it costs more to hire someone than they’d make from selling the products that person could make for them.

What if they don’t have enough money? They’ll borrow it. As long as they know they are going to make a profit from that worker, they will gladly borrow money in order to hire them. Indeed, corporations do this sort of thing all the time. If banks stop lending, that’s a big problem—it’s called a credit crunchand it’s a major part of just about any financial crisis. But that isn’t because rich people don’t have enough money, it’s because our banking system is fundamentally defective and corrupt. Yes, fixing the banking system would create jobs in a number of different ways. (The biggest three I can think of: There would be more credit for real businesses to fund investment, more credit for individuals to increase demand, and labor effort that is currently wasted on useless financial speculation would be once again returned to real production.) But that’s not what Paul Ryan and his ilk are talking about—indeed, Paul Ryan seems to think that we should undo the meager reforms we’ve already made. Unless we fundamentally change the financial system, the way to create jobs would be to create demand.

And what decides demand? Well, a lot of things I suppose; preferences, technologies, cultural norms, fads, advertising, and so on. But when you’re looking at short-run changes like the business cycle, the driving factor in most cases is actually quite simple: How much money does the middle class have to spend? The middle class is where most of the consumer spending comes from, and if the middle class has money to spend we will buy products. If we don’t have money to spend—we’re out of work, or we have too much debt to pay—then we won’t buy products. It’s not that we suddenly stopped wanting products; the utility value of those products to us is unchanged. The problem is that we simply can’t afford them anymore. This is what happens in a recession: After some sort of shock to the economy, the middle class stops being able to spend, which reduces demand. That causes corporations to lay off workers, which creates unemployment, which reduces demand even further. To correct for the lost demand, prices are supposed to go down (deflation); but this doesn’t actually work, for two reasons.

First, people absolutely hate seeing their wages go down; even if there is a legitimate economic reason, people still have a sense that they are being exploited by their employers (and sometimes they are). This is called downward nominal wage rigidity.

Second, when prices go down, the real value of debt doesn’t go down; it goes up. Your loans are denominated in dollars, not apples; so reducing the price of apples means that you actually owe more apples than you did before. Since debt is usually one of the big things holding back spending by the middle class in the first place, deflation doesn’t correct the imbalance; it makes it worse. This is called debt deflation. Maybe we shouldn’t call it that, since the problem isn’t the prices, it’s the debt. In 2008, the first thing that happened wasn’t that prices in general went down, which is what we normally mean by “deflation”; it was that housing prices went down, and so suddenly people owed vastly more on their mortgages than they had before, and many of them couldn’t afford to pay. It wasn’t a drop in prices so much as a rise in the real value of debt. (I actually think one of the reasons there is no successful comprehensive theory of the cause of business cycles is that there isn’t a single comprehensive cause of business cycles. It’s usually some form of financial crisis followed by debt deflation—and these are the ones to be worried about, 1929 and 2008—but that isn’t always what happens. In 2001, we actually had an unanticipated negative real economic shock—the 9/11 attacks. In 1973 we had a different kind of real economic shock when OPEC raised oil prices at the same time as the US hit peak oil. We should probably be distinguishing between financial recession and real recession.)

Notice how in this entire discussion of what drives aggregate demand, I have never mentioned rich people getting free money; I haven’t even mentioned tax rates. If you have the simplistic view “taxes are bad” (or the totally insane, yet still common, view “taxation is slavery”), then you’re going to look for excuses to lower taxes whenever you can. If you specifically love rich people more than poor people, you’re going to look for excuses to lower taxes on the rich and raise them on the poor (and there is really no other way to interpret Mitt Romney’s infamous “47%” comments). But none of this has anything to do with aggregate demand and job creation. It is pure ideology and has no basis in economics.

Indeed, there’s little reason to think that a tax on corporate profits or capital income would change hiring decisions at all. When we talk about the potential distortions of income taxes, we really have to be talking about labor income, because labor can actually be disincentivized. Say you’re making $15 an hour and not paying any taxes, but your tax rate is suddenly raised to 40%. You can see that after taxes your real wage is now only $9, and maybe you’ll decide that it’s just not worth it to work those hours. This is because you pay a real cost to work—it’s hard, it’s stressful, it’s frustrating, it takes up time.

Capital income can’t be disincentivized. You can have relative incentives, if you tax certain kinds of capital more than others. But if you tax all capital income at the same rate, the incentives remain exactly as they were before: Seek the highest return on investment. Your only costs were financial, and your only benefits are financial. Yes, you’ll be unhappy that your after-tax return on investment has gone down; but it won’t change your investment decisions. If you previously had the choice between investment A yielding 5% return and investment B yielding a 10% return, you’d choose B. Now you pay a 40% tax on capital income; you now have a choice between a 3% real return on A and a 6% real return on B—you’re still going to choose B. That’s probably why high marginal tax rates on income don’t reduce job growth—because most high incomes are capital incomes of one form or another; even when a CEO reports ordinary income it’s really a due to profits and stock options, it’s not like he was paid a wage for work he did.

To be fair, it does get more complicated when you include borrowing and interest rates (now you have the option of lending your money at interest or borrowing more from someone else, which may be taxed differently), and because it’s so easy to move money across borders you can have a relative incentive even when tax rates within a given nation are all the same. Don’t take this literally as saying that you can do whatever you want with taxes on capital income. But in fact you can do quite a lot, because you can change the real rate of return and have no incentive effect as long as you don’t change the relative rate of return. That’s different from wages, for which the real value of the wage can have a direct effect on employers and employees. (The only way to have the same effect on workers would be to somehow lower the real cost of working—make working easier or more fun—which actually sounds like a great idea if you can do it.) The people who are constantly telling us that workers need to tighten their belts but we mustn’t dare tax the “job creators” have the whole situation exactly backwards.

There’s something else I should bring up as well. In everything I’ve said above, I have taken as given the assumption that we need jobs. For many people, probably most Americans in fact, this is an unquestioned assumption, seemingly so obvious as to be self-evident; of course we need jobs, right? But no, actually, we don’t; what we need is production and distribution of wealth. We need to make food and clothing and houses—those are truly basic needs. We could even say we “need” (or at least want) to make televisions and computers and cars. As individuals and as a society we benefit from having these goods. And in our present capitalist economy, the way that we produce and distribute goods is through a system of jobs—you are paid to make goods, and then you can use that money to buy other goods. Don’t get me wrong; this system works pretty well, and for the most part I want to make small adjustments and reforms around the edges rather than throw the whole thing out. Thus far, other systems have not worked as well; when we have attempted to centrally plan production and distribution, the best-case scenario has been inefficiency and the worst-case scenario has been mass starvation.

But we should also be open to the possibility of other systems that are better than capitalism. We should be open to the possibility of a culture like, well, The Culture (and if you haven’t read any Iain Banks novels you should; I’d probably start with Player of Games), in which artificial intelligence and automation allows central planning to finally achieve efficient production and distribution. We should be open to the possibility of a culture like the Federation (and don’t tell me you haven’t seen Star Trek!), in which resources are so plentiful that anyone can have whatever they want, and people work not because they have to, but because they want to—it gives them meaning and purpose in their lives. Fanciful? Perhaps. But lightspeed worldwide communication and landing robots on other planets would have seemed pretty fanciful a century ago.
Capitalism is really an Industrial Era system. It was designed in, and for, a world in which the most important determinants of production are machines, raw materials, and labor hours. But we don’t live in that world anymore. The most important determinants of production are now ideas; software, research, patents, copyrights. Microsoft, Google, and Amazon don’t make things at all, they make ideas; Sony, IBM, Apple, and Toshiba make things, but those things are primarily for the production and dissemination of ideas. Ideas are just as valuable as things—if not more so—but they obey different rules.

Capitalism was designed for a world of rival, excludable goods with increasing marginal cost. Rival, meaning that if one person has it, someone else can’t have it anymore. We speak of piracy as “stealing”, but that’s totally wrong; if you steal something I have, I don’t have it anymore. If you pirate something I have, I still have it. If I gave you my computer, I wouldn’t have it anymore; but I can give you the ideas in this blog post and then we’ll both have them. Excludable, meaning that there is a way to prevent someone else from getting it if you don’t want them to. And increasing marginal cost, meaning that the more you make, the more it costs to make each one. Under these conditions, you get a very nice equilibrium that is efficient under competition.

But ideas are nonrival, they have nearly zero marginal cost, and we are increasingly finding that they aren’t even very excludable; DRM is astonishingly ineffective. Under these conditions, your nice efficient equilibrium completely evaporates. There can be many different equilibria, or no equilibrium at all; and the results are almost always inefficient. We have shoehorned capitalism onto an economy that it was not designed to deal with. Capitalism was designed for the Industrial Era; but we are now in the Information Era.

Indeed, you can see this in all our neoclassical growth models: K is physical capital—machines—and L is labor, and sometimes it is augmented with N—natural resources. But these typically only explain about 50% of the variation in economic output, so we add an extra term, A, which goes by many names: “productivity”, “efficiency”, “technology”; I think the most informative one is actually “the Solow residual”. It’s the residual; it’s the part we can’t explain, dare I say, the part capitalism isn’t designed to explain. It is, in short, made of ideas. One of my thesis papers is actually about this “total factor productivity”, and how a major component of it is made up of one class of ideas in particular: Corruption. Corruption isn’t a thing, some object in space. It’s a cultural norm, a systemic idea that permeates the thoughts and actions of the whole society. It affects what we do, whom we trust, how the rules are made, and how well we follow those rules. You can even think of capitalism as an idea, a system, a culture—and a good part of “productivity” can be accounted for by “market orientation”, which is to say how capitalist a nation is. I would like to see someday a new model that actually includes these factors as terms in the equation, instead of throwing them all together in the mysterious A that we don’t understand.

With this in mind, we should be asking ourselves whether we need jobs at all, because jobs are a system designed for the production of physical goods in the Industrial Era. Now that we live in the Information Era and most of our production is in the form of ideas, do we still need jobs? Does everyone need a job? If you’re trying to make cars for a million people, it may not take a million people to do it, but it’s going to take thousands. But if you’re trying to design a car for a million people, or make a computer game about cars for a million people to play, that can be done with a lot fewer people. Ideas can be made by a few and then disseminated to the world. General Motors has 200,000 employees (and used to have about twice as many in the 1970s); Blizzard Entertainment has less than 5,000. It’s not because they produce for fewer people; GM sells about 3 million cars a year, and Starcraft sold over 11 million copies. Starcraft came out in 1998, so I added up how many cars GM sold in the US since 1998: 61 million. That’s still 3.28 employees per thousand cars sold, but only 0.45 employees per thousand computer games sold.

Still, I don’t have a detailed account of what this new jobless economic system might look like. For now, it’s probably best if people have jobs. But if we really want to create jobs, we need to increase aggregate demand. That most likely means either reducing debt or giving more money to consumers. It certainly doesn’t have anything to do with tax cuts for the rich.

And really, this is pretty obvious; if you stop and think for a minute about why businesses create jobs, you realize that it has to do with demand for products, not how nice the government treats them or how much extra cash they have laying around. I actually have trouble believing that the people who say “job creators” unironically actually believe the words they are saying. Do they honestly think that rich people create jobs out of sheer brilliance and benevolence, but are constrained by how much money they have and “go on strike” if the government doesn’t kowtow to them?

The only way I can see that they could actually believe this sort of thing would be if they read so much Ayn Rand that it totally infested their brains and rendered them incapable of thinking outside that framework. Perhaps Krugman is right, and Rand Paul really does believe that he is John Galt. Maybe they really do honestly believe that this is how economics works—in which case it’s no wonder that our economy is in trouble. Indeed, the marvel is that it works at all.

Should we raise the minimum wage?

JDN 2456949 PDT 10:22.

The minimum wage is an economic issue that most people are familiar with; a large portion of the population has worked for minimum wage at some point in their lives, and those who haven’t generally know someone who has. As Chris Rock famously remarked (in the recording, Chris Rock, as usual, uses some foul language), “You know what that means when they pay you minimum wage? You know what they’re trying to tell you? It’s like, ‘Hey, if I could pay you less, I would; but it’s against the law.’ ”

The minimum wage was last raised in 2009, but adjusted for inflation its real value has been trending downward since 1968. The dollar values are going up, but not fast enough to keep up with inflation.

So, should we raise it again? How much? Should we just match it to inflation, or actually raise it higher in real terms? Productivity (in terms of GDP per worker) has more than doubled since 1968, so perhaps the minimum wage should double as well?

There are two major sides in this debate, and I basically disagree with both of them.

The first is the right-wing view (here espoused by the self-avowed “Objectivist” Don Watkins) that the minimum wage should be abolished entirely because it is an arbitrary price floor that prevents workers from selling their labor at whatever wage the market will bear. He argues that the free market is the only way the value of labor should be assessed and the government has no business getting involved.

On the other end of the spectrum we have Robert Reich, who thinks we should definitely raise the minimum wage and it would be the best way to lift workers out of poverty. He argues that by providing minimum-wage workers with welfare and Medicaid, we are effectively subsidizing employers to pay lower wages. While I sympathize a good deal more with this view, I still don’t think it’s quite right.

Why not? Because Watkins is right about one thing: The minimum wage is, in fact, an arbitrary price floor. Out of all the possible wages that an employer could pay, how did we decide that this one should be the lowest? And the same applies to everyone, no matter who they are or what sort of work they do?

What Watkins gets wrong—and Reich gets right—is that wages are not actually set in a free and competitive market. Large corporations have market power; they can influence wages and prices to their own advantage. They use monopoly power to raise prices, and its inverse, monopsony power, to lower wages. The workers who are making a minimum wage of $7.25 wouldn’t necessarily make $7.25 in a competitive market; they could make more than that. All we know, actually, is that they would make at least this much, because if a worker’s marginal productivity is below the minimum wage the corporation simply wouldn’t have hired them.

Monopsony power doesn’t just lower wages; it also reduces employment. One of the ways that corporations can control wages is by controlling hiring; if they tried to hire more people, they’d have to offer a higher wage, so instead they hire fewer people. Under these circumstances, a higher minimum wage can actually create jobs, as Reich argues it will. And in this particular case I think he’s right about that, because corporations have enormous market power to hold wages down and in the Second Depression we have a huge amount of unused productive capacity. But this isn’t true in general. If markets are competitive, then raising minimum wage just causes unemployment. Even when corporations have market power, if there isn’t much unused capacity then raising minimum wage will just lead them to raise prices instead of hiring more workers.

Reich is also wrong about this idea that welfare payments subsidize low wages. On the contrary, the stronger your welfare system, the higher your wages will be. The reason is quite simple: A stronger welfare system gives workers more bargaining power. If not getting this job means you turn to prostitution or starve to death, then you’re going to take just about any wage they offer you. (I don’t entirely agree with Krugman’s defense of sweatshops—I believe there are ways to increase trade without allowing oppressive working conditions—but he makes this point quite vividly.) On the other hand, if you live in the US with a moderate welfare system, you can sometimes afford to say no; you might end up broke or worse, homeless, but you’re unlikely to starve to death because at least you have food stamps. And in a nation with a really robust welfare system like Sweden, you can walk away from any employer who offers to pay you less than your labor is worth, because you know that even if you can’t find a job for awhile your basic livelihood will be protected. As a result, stronger welfare programs make labor markets more competitive and raise wages. Welfare and Medicaid do not subsidize low-wage employers; they exert pressure on employers to raise their low wages. Indeed, a sufficiently strong welfare system could render minimum wage redundant, as I’ll get back to at the end of this post.

Of course, I am above all an empiricist; all theory must bow down before the data. So what does the data say? Does raising the minimum wage create jobs or destroy jobs? Our best answer from compiling various studies is… neither. Moderate increases in the minimum wage have no discernible effect on employment. In some studies we’ve found increases, in others decreases, but the overall average effect across many studies is indistinguishable from zero.

Of course, a sufficiently large increase is going to decrease employment; a Fox News reporter once famously asked: “Why not raise the minimum wage to $100,000 an hour!?” (which Jon Stewart aptly satirized as “Why not pay people in cocaine and unicorns!?”) Yes, raising the minimum wage to $100,000 an hour would create massive inflation and unemployment. But that really says nothing about whether raising the minimum wage to $10 or $20 would be a good idea. Covering your car with 4000 gallons of gasoline is a bad idea, but filling it with 10 gallons is generally necessary for its proper functioning.

This kind of argument is actually pretty common among Republicans, come to think of it. Take the Laffer Curve, for instance; it’s basically saying that since a 99% tax on everyone would damage the economy (which is obviously true) then a 40% tax specifically on millionaires must have the same effect. Another good one is Rush Limbaugh’s argument that if unemployment benefits are good, why not just put everyone on unemployment benefits? Well, again, because there’s a difference between doing something for some people sometimes and doing it for everyone all the time. There are these things called numbers; they measure whether something is bigger or smaller instead of just “there” or “not there”. You might want to learn about that.

Since moderate increases in minimum wage have no effect on unemployment, and we are currently under conditions of extremely low—in fact, dangerously low—inflation, then I think on balance we should go with Reich: Raising the minimum wage would do more good than harm.

But in general, is minimum wage the best way to help workers out of poverty? No, I don’t think it is. It’s awkward and heavy-handed; it involves trying to figure out what the optimal wage should be and writing it down in legislation, instead of regulating markets so that they will naturally seek that optimal level and respond to changes in circumstances. It only helps workers at the very bottom: Someone making $12 an hour is hardly rich, but they won’t benefit from increasing minimum wage to $10; in fact they might be worse off, if that increase triggers inflation that lowers the real value of their $12 wage.

What do I propose instead? A basic income. There should be a cash payment that every adult citizen receives, once a month, directly from the government—no questions asked. You don’t have to be unemployed, you don’t have to be disabled, you don’t have to be looking for work. You don’t have to spend it on anything in particular; you can use it for food, for housing, for transportation; or if you like you can use it for entertainment or save it for a rainy day. We don’t keep track of what you do with it, because it’s your own freedom and none of our business. We just give you this money as your dividends for being a shareholder in the United States of America.

This would be extremely easy to implement—the IRS already has all the necessary infrastructure, they just need to turn some minus signs into plus signs. We could remove all the bureaucracy involved in administering TANF and SNAP and Medicaid, because there’s no longer any reason to keep track of who is in poverty since nobody is. We could in fact fold the $500 billion a year we currently spend on means-tested programs into the basic income itself. We could pull another $300 billion from defense spending while still solidly retaining the world’s most powerful military.

Which brings me to the next point: How much would this cost? Probably less than you think. I propose indexing the basic income to the poverty line for households of 2 or more; since currently a household of 2 or more at the poverty line makes $15,730 per year, the basic income would be $7,865 per person per year. The total cost of giving that amount to each of the 243 million adults in the United States would be $1.9 trillion, or about 12% of our GDP. If we fold in the means-tested programs, that lowers the net cost to $1.4 trillion, 9% of GDP. This means that an additional flat tax of 9% would be enough to cover the entire amount, even if we don’t cut any other government spending.

If you use a progressive tax system like I recommended a couple of posts ago, you could raise this much with a tax on less than 5% of utility, which means that someone making the median income of $30,000 would only pay 5.3% more than they presently do. At the mean income of $50,000, you’d only pay 7.7%. And keep in mind that you are also receiving the additional $7,865; so in fact in both cases you actually end up with more than you had before the basic income was implemented. The break-even point is at about $80,000, where you pay an extra 9.9% ($7,920) and receive $7,865, so your after-tax income is now $79,945. Anyone making less than $80,000 per year actually gains from this deal; the only people who pay more than they receive are those who make more than $80,000. This is about the average income of someone in the fourth quintile (the range where 60% to 80% of the population is below you), so this means that roughly 70% of Americans would benefit from this program.

With this system in place, we wouldn’t need a minimum wage. Working full-time at our current minimum wage makes you $7.25*40*52 = $15,080 per year. If you are a single person, you’re getting $7,865 from the basic income, this means that you’ll still have more than you presently do as long as your employer pays you at least $3.47 per hour. And if they don’t? Well then you can just quit, knowing that at least you have that $7,865. If you’re married, it’s even better; the two of you already get $15,730 from the basic income. If you were previously raising a family working full-time on minimum wage while your spouse is unemployed, guess what: You actually will make more money after the policy no matter what wage your employer pays you.

This system can adapt to changes in the market, because it is indexed to the poverty level (which is indexed to inflation), and also because it doesn’t say anything about what wage an employer pays. They can pay as little or as much as the market will bear; but the market is going to bear more, because workers can afford to quit. Billionaires are going to hate this plan, because it raises their taxes (by about 40%) and makes it harder for them to exploit workers. But for 70% of Americans, this plan is a pretty good deal.

What are the limits to growth?

JDN 2456941 PDT 12:25.

Paul Krugman recently wrote a column about the “limits to growth” community, and as usual, it’s good stuff; his example of how steamships substituted more ships for less fuel is quite compelling. But there’s a much stronger argument to made against “limits to growth”, and I thought I’d make it here.

The basic idea, most famously propounded by Jay Forrester but still with many proponents today (and actually owing quite a bit to Thomas Malthus), is this: There’s only so much stuff in the world. If we keep adding more people and trying to give people higher standards of living, we’re going to exhaust all the stuff, and then we’ll be in big trouble.

This argument seems intuitively reasonable, but turns out to be economically naïve. It can take several specific forms, from the basically reasonable to the utterly ridiculous. On the former end is “peak oil”, the point at which we reach a maximum rate of oil extraction. We’re actually past that point in most places, and it won’t be long before the whole world crosses that line. So yes, we really are running out of oil, and we need to transition to other fuels as quickly as possible. On the latter end is the original Mathusian argument (we now have much more food per person worldwide than they did in Malthus’s time—that’s why ending world hunger is a realistic option now), and, sadly, the argument Mark Buchanan made a few days ago. No, you don’t always need more energy to produce more economic output—as Krugman’s example cleverly demonstrates. You can use other methods to improve your energy efficiency, and that doesn’t necessarily require new technology.

Here’s the part that Krugman missed: Even if we need more energy, there’s plenty of room at the top. The total amount of sunlight that hits the Earth is about 1.3 kW/m^2, and the Earth has a surface area of about 500 million km^2, which is 5e14 m^2. That means that if we could somehow capture all the sunlight that hits the Earth, we’d have 6.5e17 W, which is 5.7e18 kilowatt-hours per year. Total world energy consumption is about 140,000 terawatt-hours per year, which is 1.4e14 kilowatt-hours per year. That means we could increase energy consumption by a factor of one thousand just using Earth-based solar power (Covering the oceans with synthetic algae? A fleet of high-altitude balloons covered in high-efficiency solar panels?). That’s not including fission power, which is already economically efficient, or fusion power, which has passed break-even and may soon become economically feasible as well. Fusion power is only limited by the size of your reactor and your quantity of deuterium, and deuterium is found in ocean water (about 33 milligrams per liter), not to mention permeating all of outer space. If we can figure out how to fuse ordinary hydrogen, well now our fuel is literally the most abundant substance in the universe.

And what if we move beyond the Earth? What if we somehow captured not just the solar energy that hits the Earth, but the totality of solar energy that the Sun itself releases? That figure is about 1e31 joules per day, which is 1e27 kilowatt-hours per day, or seven trillion times as much energy as we currently consume. It is literally enough to annihilate entire planets, which the Sun would certainly do if you put a planet near enough to it. A theoretical construct to capture all this energy is called a Dyson Sphere, and the ability to construct one officially makes you a Type 2 Kardashev Civilization. (We currently stand at about Type 0.7. Building that worldwide solar network would raise us to Type 1.)

Can we actually capture all that energy with our current technology? Of course not. Indeed, we probably won’t have that technology for centuries if not millennia. But if your claim—as Mark Buchanan’s was—is about fundamental physical limits, then you should be talking about Dyson Spheres. If you’re not, then we are really talking about practical economic limits.

Are there practical economic limits to growth? Of course there are; indeed, they are what actually constrains growth in the real world. That’s why the US can’t grow above 2% and China won’t be growing at 7% much longer. (I am rather disturbed by the fact that many of the Chinese nationals I know don’t appreciate this; they seem to believe the propaganda that this rapid growth is something fundamentally better about the Chinese system, rather than the simple economic fact that it’s easier to grow rapidly when you are starting very small. I had a conversation with a man the other day who honestly seemed to think that Macau could sustain its 12% annual GDP growth—driven by gambling, no less! Zero real productivity!—into the indefinite future. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled that China is growing so fast and lifting so many people out of poverty. But no remotely credible economist believes they can sustain this growth forever. The best-case scenario is to follow the pattern of Korea, rising from Third World to First World status in a few generations. Korea grew astonishingly fast from about 1950 to 1990, but now that they’ve made it, their growth rate is only 3%.)

There is also a reasonable argument to be made about the economic tradeoffs involved in fighting climate change and natural resource depletion. While the people of Brazil may like to have more firewood and space for farming, the fact is the rest of need that Amazon in order to breathe. While any given fisherman may be rational in the amount of fish he catches, worldwide we are running out of fish. And while we Americans may love our low gas prices (and become furious when they rise even slightly), the fact is, our oil subsidies are costing hundreds of billions of dollars and endangering millions of lives.

We may in fact have to bear some short-term cost in economic output in order to ensure long-term environmental sustainability (though to return to Krugman, that cost may be a lot less than many people think!). Economic growth does slow down as you reach high standards of living, and it may even continue to slow down as technology begins to reach diminishing returns (though this is much harder to forecast). So yes, in that sense there are limits to growth. But the really fundamental limits aren’t something we have to worry about for at least a thousand years. Right now, it’s just a question of good economic policy.

The moral—and economic—case for progressive taxation

JDN 2456935 PDT 09:44.

Broadly speaking, there are three ways a tax system can be arranged: It can be flat, in which every person pays the same tax rate; it can be regressive, in which people with higher incomes pay lower rates; or it can be progressive, in which case people with higher incomes pay higher rates.

There are certain benefits to a flat tax: Above all, it’s extremely easy to calculate. It’s easy to determine how much revenue a given tax rate will raise; multiply the rate times your GDP. It’s also easy to determine how much a given person should owe; multiply the rate times their income. This also makes the tax withholding process much easier; a fixed proportion can be withheld from all income everyone makes without worrying about how much they made before or are expected to make later. If your goal is minimal bureaucracy, a flat tax does have something to be said for it.

A regressive tax, on the other hand, is just as complicated as a progressive tax but has none of the benefits. It’s unfair because you’re actually taking more from people who can afford the least. (Note that this is true even if the rich actually pay a higher total; the key point, which I will explain in detail shortly, is that a dollar is worth more to you if you don’t have very many.) There is basically no reason you would ever want to have a regressive tax system—and yet, all US states have regressive tax systems. This is mainly because they rely upon sales taxes, which are regressive because rich people spend a smaller portion of what they have. If you make $10,000 per year, you probably spend $9,500 (you may even spend $15,000 and rack up the difference in debt!). If you make $50,000, you probably spend $40,000. But if you make $10 million, you probably only spend $4 million. Since sales taxes only tax on what you spend, the rich effectively pay a lower rate. This could be corrected to some extent by raising the sales tax on luxury goods—say a 20% rate on wine and a 50% rate on yachts—but this is awkward and very few states even try. Not even my beloved California; they fear drawing the ire of wineries and Silicon Valley.

The best option is to make the tax system progressive. Thomas Piketty has been called a “Communist” for favoring strongly progressive taxation, but in fact most Americans—including Republicans—agree that our tax system should be progressive. (Most Americans also favor cutting the Department of Defense rather than Medicare. This then raises the question: Why isn’t Congress doing that? Why aren’t people voting in representatives to Congress who will do that?) Most people judge whether taxes are fair based on what they themselves pay—which is why, in surveys, the marginal rate on the top 1% is basically unrelated to whether people think taxes are too high, even though that one bracket is the critical decision in deciding any tax system—you can raise about 20% of your revenue by hurting about 1% of your people. In a typical sample of 1,000 respondents, only about 10 are in the top 1%. If you want to run for Congress, the implication is clear: Cut taxes on all but the top 1%, raise them enormously on the top 0.1%, 0.01%, and 0.001%, and leave the 1% the same. People will feel that you’ve made the taxes more fair, and you’ve also raised more revenue. In other words, make the tax system more progressive.

The good news on this front is that the US federal tax system is progressive—barely. Actually the US tax system is especially progressive over the whole distribution—by some measures the most progressive in the world—but the problem is that it’s not nearly progressive enough at the very top, where the real money is. The usual measure based on our Gini coefficient ignores the fact that Warren Buffett pays a lower rate than his secretary. The Gini is based on population, and billionaires are a tiny portion of the population—but they are not a tiny portion of the money. Net wealth of the 400 richest people (the top 0.0001%) adds up to about $2 trillion (13% of our $15 trillion GDP, or about 4% of our $54 trillion net wealth). It also matters of course how you spend your tax revenue; even though Sweden’s tax system is no more progressive than ours and their pre-tax inequality is about the same, their spending is much more targeted at reducing inequality.

Progressive taxation is inherently more fair, because the value of a dollar decreases the more you have. We call this diminishing marginal utility of wealth. There is a debate within the cognitive economics literature about just how quickly the marginal utility of wealth decreases. On the low end, Easterlin argues that it drops off extremely fast, becoming almost negligible as low as $75,000 per year. This paper is on the high end, arguing that marginal utility decreases “only” as the logarithm of how much you have. That’s what I’ll use in this post, because it’s the most conservative reasonable estimate. I actually think the truth is somewhere in between, with marginal utility decreasing about exponentially.

Logarithms are also really easy to work with, once you get used to them. So let’s say that the amount of happiness (utility) U you get from an amount of income I is like this: U = ln(I)

Now let’s suppose the IRS comes along and taxes your money at a rate r. We must have r < 1, or otherwise they’re trying to take money you don’t have. We don’t need to have r > 0; r < 0 would just mean that you receive more in transfers than you lose in taxes. For the poor we should have r < 0.

Now your happiness is U = ln((1-r)I).

By the magic of logarithms, this is U = ln(I) + ln(1-r).

If r is between 0 and 1, ln(1-r) is negative and you’re losing happiness. (If r < 0, you’re gaining happiness.) The amount of happiness you lose, ln(1-r), is independent of your income. So if your goal is to take a fixed amount of happiness, you should tax at a fixed rate of income—a flat tax.

But that really isn’t fair, is it? If I’m getting 100 utilons of happiness from my money and you’re only getting 2 utilons from your money, then taking that 1 utilon, while it hurts the same—that’s the whole point of utility—leaves you an awful lot worse off than I. It actually makes the ratio between us worse, going from 50 to 1, all the way up to 99 to 1.

Notice how if we had a regressive tax, it would be obviously unfair—we’d actually take more utility from poor people than rich people. I have 100 utilons, you have 2 utilons; the taxes take 1.5 of yours but only 0.5 of mine. That seems frankly outrageous; but it’s what all US states have.

Most of the money you have is ultimately dependent on your society. Let’s say you own a business and made your wealth selling products; it seems like you deserve to have that wealth, doesn’t it? (Don’t get me started on people who inherited their wealth!) Well, in order to do that, you need to have strong institutions of civil government; you need security against invasion; you need protection of property rights and control of crime; you need a customer base who can afford your products (that’s our problem in the Second Depression); you need workers who are healthy and skilled; you need a financial system that provides reliable credit (also a problem). I’m having trouble finding any good research on exactly what proportion of individual wealth is dependent upon the surrounding society, but let’s just say Bill Gates wouldn’t be spending billions fighting malaria in villages in Ghana if he had been born in a village in Ghana. It doesn’t matter how brilliant or determined or hard-working you are, if you live in a society that can’t support economic activity.

In other words, society is giving you a lot of happiness you wouldn’t otherwise have. Because of this, it makes sense that in order to pay for all that stuff society is doing for you (and maintain a stable monetary system), they would tax you according to how much happiness they’re giving you. Hence we shouldn’t tax your money at a constant rate; we should tax your utility at a constant rate and then convert back to money. This defines a new sort of “tax rate” which I’ll call p. Like our tax rate r, p needs to be less than 1, but it doesn’t need to be greater than 0.

Of the U = ln(I) utility you get from your money, you will get to keep U = (1-p) ln(I). Say it’s 10%; then if I have 100 utilons, they take 10 utilons and leave me with 90. If you have 2 utilons, they take 0.2 and leave you with 1.8. The ratio between us remains the same: 50 to 1.

What does this mean for the actual tax rate? It has to be progressive. Very progressive, as a matter of fact. And in particular, progressive all the way up—there is no maximum tax bracket.

The amount of money you had before is just I.

The amount of money you have now can be found as the amount of money I’ that gives you the right amount of utility. U = ln(I’) = (1-p) ln(I). Take the exponential of both sides: I’ = I^(1-p).

The units on this are a bit weird, “dollars to the 0.8 power”? Oddly, this rarely seems to bother economists when they use Cobb-Douglas functions which are like K^(1/3) L^(2/3). It bothers me though; to really make this tax system in practice you’d need to fix the units of measurement, probably using some subsistence level. Say that’s set at $10,000; instead of saying you make $2 million, we’d say you make 200 subsistence levels.

The tax rate you pay is then r = 1 – I’/I, which is r = 1 – I^-p. As I increases, I^-p decreases, so r gets closer and closer to 1. It never actually hits 1 (that would be a 100% tax rate, which hardly anyone thinks is fair), but for very large income is does get quite close.

Here, let’s use some actual numbers. Suppose as I said we make the subsistence level $10,000. Let’s also set p = 0.1, meaning we tax 10% of your utility. Then, if you make the US median individual income, that’s about $30,000 which would be I = 3. US per-capita GDP of $55,000 would be I = 5.5, and so on. I’ll ignore incomes below the subsistence level for now—basically what you want to do there is establish a basic income so that nobody is below the subsistence level.

I made a table of tax rates and after-tax incomes that would result:

Pre-tax income Tax rate After-tax income
$10,000 0.0% $10,000
$20,000 6.7% $18,661
$30,000 10.4% $26,879
$40,000 12.9% $34,822
$50,000 14.9% $42,567
$60,000 16.4% $50,158
$70,000 17.7% $57,622
$80,000 18.8% $64,980
$90,000 19.7% $72,247
$100,000 20.6% $79,433
$1,000,000 36.9% $630,957
$10,000,000 49.9% $5,011,872
$100,000,000 60.2% $39,810,717
$1,000,000,000 68.4% $316,227,766

What if that’s not enough revenue? We could raise to p = 0.2:

Pre-tax income Tax rate After-tax income
$10,000 0.0% $10,000
$20,000 12.9% $17,411
$30,000 19.7% $24,082
$40,000 24.2% $30,314
$50,000 27.5% $36,239
$60,000 30.1% $41,930
$70,000 32.2% $47,433
$80,000 34.0% $52,780
$90,000 35.6% $57,995
$100,000 36.9% $63,096
$1,000,000 60.2% $398,107
$10,000,000 74.9% $2,511,886
$100,000,000 84.2% $15,848,932
$1,000,000,000 90.0% $100,000,000

The richest 400 people in the US have a combined net wealth of about $2.2 trillion. If we assume that billionaires make about a 10% return on their net wealth, this 90% rate would raise over $200 billion just from those 400 billionaires alone, enough to pay all interest on the national debt. Let me say that again: This tax system would raise enough money from a group of people who could fit in a large lecture hall to provide for servicing the national debt. And it could do so indefinitely, because we are only taxing the interest, not the principal.

And what if that’s still not enough? We could raise it even further, to p = 0.3. Now the tax rates look a bit high for most people, but not absurdly so—and notice how the person at the poverty line is still paying nothing, as it should be. The millionaire is unhappy with 75%, but the billionaire is really unhappy with his 97% rate. But the government now has plenty of money.

Pre-tax income Tax rate After-tax income
$10,000 0.0% $10,000
$20,000 18.8% $16,245
$30,000 28.1% $21,577
$40,000 34.0% $26,390
$50,000 38.3% $30,852
$60,000 41.6% $35,051
$70,000 44.2% $39,045
$80,000 46.4% $42,871
$90,000 48.3% $46,555
$100,000 49.9% $50,119
$1,000,000 74.9% $251,189
$10,000,000 87.4% $1,258,925
$100,000,000 93.7% $6,309,573
$1,000,000,000 96.8% $31,622,777

Is it fair to tax the super-rich at such extreme rates? Well, why wouldn’t it be? They are living fabulously well, and most of their opportunity to do so is dependent upon living in our society. It’s actually not at all unreasonable to think that over 97% of the wealth a billionaire has is dependent upon society in this way—indeed, I think it’s unreasonable to imagine that it’s any less than 99.9%. If you say that the portion a billionaire receives from society is less than 99.9%, you are claiming that it is possible to become a millionaire while living on a desert island. (Remember, 0.1% of $1 billion is $1 million.) Forget the money system; do you really think that anything remotely like a millionaire standard of living is possible from catching your own fish and cutting down your own trees?Another fun fact is that this tax system will not change the ordering of income at all. If you were the 37,824th richest person yesterday, you will be the 37,824th richest person today; you’ll just have a lot less money while you do so. And if you were the 300,120,916th richest person, you’ll still be the 300,120,916th person, and probably still have the same amount of money you did before (or even more, if the basic income is doled out on tax day).

And these figures, remember, are based on a conservative estimate of how quickly the marginal utility of wealth decreases. I’m actually pretty well convinced that it’s much faster than that, in which case even these tax rates may not be progressive enough.

Many economists worry that taxes reduce the incentive to work. If you are taxed at 30%, that’s like having a wage that’s 30% lower. It’s not hard to imagine why someone might not work as much if they were being paid 30% less.

But there are actually two effects here. One is the substitution effect: a higher wage gives you more reason to work. The other is the income effect: having more money means that you can meet your needs without working as much.

For low incomes, the substitution effect dominates; if your pay rises from $12,000 a year to $15,000, you’re probably going to work more, because you get paid more to work and you’re still hardly wealthy enough to rest on your laurels.

For moderate incomes, the effects actually balance quite well; people who make $40,000 work about the same number of hours as people who make $50,000.

For high incomes, the income effect dominates; if your pay rises from $300,000 to $400,000, you’re probably going to work less, because you can pay all your bills while putting in less work.

So if you want to maximize work incentives, what should you do? You want to raise the wages of poor people and lower the wages of rich people. In other words, you want very low—or negative—taxes on the lower brackets, and very high taxes on the upper brackets. If you’re genuinely worried about taxes distorting incentives to work, you should be absolutely in favor of progressive taxation.

In conclusion: Because money is worth less to you the more of it you have, in order to take a fixed proportion of the happiness, we should be taking an increasing proportion of the money. In order to be fair in terms of real utility, taxes should be progressive. And this would actually increase work incentives.