No, capital taxes should not be zero

JDN 2456998 PST 11:38.

It’s an astonishingly common notion among neoclassical economists that we should never tax capital gains, and all taxes should fall upon labor income. Here Scott Sumner writing for The Economist has the audacity to declare this a ‘basic principle of economics’. Many of the arguments are based on rather esoteric theorems like the Atkinson-Stiglitz Theorem (I thought you were better than that, Stiglitz!) and the Chamley-Judd Theorem.

All of these theorems rest upon two very important assumptions, which many economists take for granted—yet which are utterly and totally untrue. For once it’s not assumed that we are infinite identical psychopaths; actually psychopaths might not give wealth to their children in inheritance, which would undermine the argument in a different way, by making each individual have a finite time horizon. No, the assumptions are that saving is the source of investment, and investment is the source of capital income.

Investment is the source of capital, that’s definitely true—the total amount of wealth in society is determined by investment. You do have to account for the fact that real investment isn’t just factories and machines, it’s also education, healthcare, infrastructure. With that in mind, yes, absolutely, the total amount of wealth is a function of the investment rate.

But that doesn’t mean that investment is the source of capital income—because in our present system the distribution of capital income is in no way determined by real investment or the actual production of goods. Virtually all capital income comes from financial markets, which are rife with corruption—they are indeed the main source of corruption that remains in First World nations—and driven primarily by arbitrage and speculation, not real investment. Contrary to popular belief and economic theory, the stock market does not fund corporations; corporations fund the stock market. It’s this bizarre game our society plays, in which a certain portion of the real output of our productive industries is siphoned off so that people who are already rich can gamble over it. Any theory of capital income which fails to take these facts into account is going to be fundamentally distorted.

The other assumption is that investment is savings, that the way capital increases is by labor income that isn’t spent on consumption. This isn’t even close to true, and I never understood why so many economists think it is. The notion seems to be that there is a certain amount of money in the world, and what you don’t spend on consumption goods you can instead spend on investment. But this is just flatly not true; the money supply is dynamically flexible, and the primary means by which money is created is through banks creating loans for the purpose of investment. It’s that I term I talked about in my post on the deficit; it seems to come out of nowhere, because that’s literally what happens.

On the reasoning that savings is just labor income that you don’t spend on consumption, then if you compute the figure W – C , wages and salaries minus consumption, that figure should be savings, and it should be equal to investment. Well, that figure is negative—for reasons I gave in that post. Total employee compensation in the US in 2014 is $9.2 trillion, while total personal consumption expenditure is $11.4 trillion. The reason we are able to save at all is because of government transfers, which account for $2.5 trillion. To fill up our GDP to its total of $16.8 trillion, you need to add capital income: proprietor income ($1.4 trillion) and receipts on assets ($2.1 trillion); then you need to add in the part of government spending that isn’t transfers ($1.4 trillion).

If you start with the fanciful assumption that the way capital increases is by people being “thrifty” and choosing to save a larger proportion of their income, then it makes some sense not to tax capital income. (Scott Sumner makes exactly that argument, having us compare two brothers with equal income, one of whom chooses to save more.) But this is so fundamentally removed from how capital—and for that matter capitalism—actually operates that I have difficulty understanding why anyone could think that it is true.

The best I can come up with is something like this: They model the world by imagining that there is only one good, peanuts, and everyone starts with the same number of peanuts, and everyone has a choice to either eat their peanuts or save and replant them. Then, the total production of peanuts in the future will be due to the proportion of peanuts that were replanted today, and the amount of peanuts each person has will be due to their past decisions to save rather than consume. Therefore savings will be equal to investment and investment will be the source of capital income.

I bet you can already see the problem even in this simple model, if we just relax the assumption of equal wealth endowments: Some people have a lot more peanuts than others. Why do some people eat all their peanuts? Well it probably has something to do with the fact they’d starve if they didn’t. Reducing your consumption below the level at which you can survive isn’t “thrifty”, it’s suicidal. (And if you think this is a strawman, the IMF has literally told Third World countries that their problem is they need to save more. Here they are arguing that in Ghana.) In fact, economic growth leads to saving, not the other way around. Most Americans aren’t starving, and could probably stand to save more than we do, but honestly it might not be good if we did—everyone trying to save more can lead to the Paradox of Thrift and cause a recession.

Even worse, in that model world, there is only capital income. There is no such thing as labor income, only the number of peanuts you grow from last year’s planting. If we now add in labor income, what happens? Well, peanuts don’t work anymore… let’s try robots. You have a certain number of robots, and you can either use the robots to do things you need (including somehow feeding you, I guess), or you can use them to build more robots to use later. You can also build more robots yourself. Then the “zero capital tax” argument amounts to saying that the government should take some of your robots for public use if you made them yourself, but not if they were made by other robots you already had.

In order for that argument to carry through, you need to say that there was no such thing as an initial capital endowment; all robots that exist were either made by their owners or saved from previous construction. If there is anyone who simply happened to be born with more robots, or has more because they stole them from someone else (or, more likely, both, they inherited from someone who stole), the argument falls apart.

And even then you need to think about the incentives: If capital income is really all from savings, then taxing capital income provides an incentive to spend. Is that a bad thing? I feel like it isn’t; the economy needs spending. In the robot toy model, we’re giving people a reason to use their robots to do actual stuff, instead of just leaving them to make more robots. That actually seems like it might be a good thing, doesn’t it? More stuff gets done that helps people, instead of just having vast warehouses full of robots building other robots in the hopes that someday we can finally use them for something. Whereas, taxing labor income may give people an incentive not to work, which is definitely going to reduce economic output. More precisely, higher taxes on labor would give low-wage workers an incentive to work less, and give high-wage workers an incentive to work more, which is a major part of the justification of progressive income taxes. A lot of the models intended to illustrate the Chamley-Judd Theorem assume that taxes have an effect on capital but no effect on labor, which is kind of begging the question.

Another thought that occurred to me is: What if the robots in the warehouse are all destroyed by a war or an earthquake? And indeed the possibility of sudden capital destruction would be a good reason not to put everything into investment. This is generally modeled as “uninsurable depreciation risk”, but come on; of course it’s uninsurable. All real risk is uninsurable in the aggregate. Insurance redistributes resources from those who have them but don’t need them to those who suddenly find they need them but don’t have them. This actually does reduce the real risk in utility, but it certainly doesn’t reduce the real risk in terms of goods. Stephen Colbert made this point very well: “Obamacare needs the premiums of healthier people to cover the costs of sicker people. It’s a devious con that can only be described as—insurance.” (This suggests that Stephen Colbert understands insurance better than many economists.) Someone has to make that new car that you bought using your insurance when you totaled the last one. Insurance companies cannot create cars or houses—or robots—out of thin air. And as Piketty and Saez point out, uninsurable risk undermines the Chamley-Judd Theorem. Unlike all these other economists, Piketty and Saez actually understand capital and inequality.
Sumner hand-waves that point away by saying we should just institute a one-time transfer of wealth to equalized the initial distribution, as though this were somehow a practically (not to mention politically) feasible alternative. Ultimately, yes, I’d like to see something like that happen; restore the balance and then begin anew with a just system. But that’s exceedingly difficult to do, while raising the tax rate on capital gains is very easy—and furthermore if we leave the current stock market and derivatives market in place, we will not have a just system by any stretch of the imagination. Perhaps if we can actually create a system where new wealth is really due to your own efforts, where there is no such thing as inheritance of riches (say a 100% estate tax above $1 million), no such thing as poverty (a basic income), no speculation or arbitrage, and financial markets that actually have a single real interest rate and offer all the credit that everyone needs, maybe then you can say that we should not tax capital income.

Until then, we should tax capital income, probably at least as much as we tax labor income.

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