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.

The Asymmetry that Rules the World

JDN 2456921 PDT 13:30.

One single asymmetry underlies millions of problems and challenges the world has always faced. No, it’s not Christianity versus Islam (or atheism). No, it’s not the enormous disparities in wealth between the rich and the poor, though you’re getting warmer.

It is the asymmetry of information—the fundamental fact that what you know and what I know are not the same. If this seems so obvious as to be unworthy of comment, maybe you should tell that to the generations of economists who have assumed perfect information in all of their models.

It’s not clear that information asymmetry could ever go away—even in the utopian post-scarcity economy of the Culture, one of the few sacred rules is the sanctity of individual thought. The closest to an information-symmetric world I can think of is the Borg, and with that in mind we may ask whether we want such a thing after all. It could even be argued that total information symmetry is logically impossible, because once you make two individuals know and believe exactly the same things, you don’t have two individuals anymore, you just have one. (And then where do we draw the line? It’s that damn Ship of Theseus again—except of course the problem was never the ship, but defining the boundaries of Theseus himself.)

Right now you may be thinking: So what? Why is asymmetric information so important? Well, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the Myerson-Satterthwaithe Theorem proves—mathematically proves, as certain as 2+2=4—that in the presence of asymmetric information, there is no market mechanism that guarantees Pareto-efficiency.

You can’t square that circle; because information is asymmetric, there’s just no way to make a free market that insures Pareto efficiency. This result is so strong that it actually makes you begin to wonder if we should just give up on economics entirely! If there’s no way we can possibly make a market that works, why bother at all?

But this is not the appropriate response. First of all, Pareto-efficiency is overrated; there are plenty of bad systems that are Pareto-efficient, and even some good systems that aren’t quite Pareto-efficient.

More importantly, even if there is no perfect market system, there clearly are better and worse market systems. Life is better here in the US than it is in Venezuela. Life in Sweden is arguably a bit better still (though not in every dimension). Life in Zambia and North Korea is absolutely horrific. Clearly there are better and worse ways to run a society, and the market system is a big part of that. The quality—and sometimes quantity—of life of billions of people can be made better or worse by the decisions we make in managing our economic system. Asymmetric information cannot be conquered, but it can be tamed.

This is actually a major subject for cognitive economics: How can we devise systems of regulation that minimize the damage done by asymmetric information? Akerlof’s Nobel was for his work on this subject, especially his famous paper “The Market for Lemons” in which he showed how product quality regulations could increase efficiency using the example of lemon cars. What he showed was, in short, that libertarian deregulation is stupid; removing regulations on product safety and quality doesn’t increase efficiency, it reduces it. (This is of course only true if the regulations are good ones; but despite protests from the supplement industry I really don’t see how “this bottle of pills must contain what it claims to contain” is an illegitimate regulation.)

Unfortunately, the way we currently write regulations leaves much to be desired: Basically, lobbyists pay hundreds of staffers to make hundreds of pages that no human being can be expected to read, and then hands them to Congress with a wink and a reminder of last year’s campaign contributions, who passes them without question. (Can you believe the US is one of the least corrupt governments in the world? Yup, that’s how bad it is out there.) As a result, we have a huge morass of regulations that nobody really understands, and there is a whole “industry” of people whose job it is to decode those regulations and use them to the advantage of whoever is paying them—lawyers. The amount of deadweight loss introduced into our economy is almost incalculable; if I had to guess, I’d have to put it somewhere in the trillions of dollars per year. At the very least, I can tell you that the $200 billion per year spent by corporations on litigation is all deadweight loss due to bad regulation. That is an industry that should not exist—I cannot stress this enough. We’ve become so accustomed to the idea that regulations are this complicated that people have to be paid six-figure salaries to understand them that we never stopped to think whether this made any sense. The US Constitution was originally printed on 6 pages.

The tax code should contain one formula for setting tax brackets with one or two parameters to adjust to circumstances, and then a list of maybe two dozen goods with special excise taxes for their externalities (like gasoline and tobacco). In reality it is over 70,000 pages.

Laws should be written with a clear and general intent, and then any weird cases can be resolved in court—because there will always be cases you couldn’t anticipate. Shakespeare was onto something when he wrote, “First, kill all the lawyers.” (I wouldn’t kill them; I’d fire them and make them find a job doing something genuinely useful, like engineering or management.)

All told, I think you could run an entire country with less than 100 pages of regulations. Furthermore, these should be 100 pages that are taught to every high school student, because after all, we’re supposed to be following them. How are we supposed to follow them if we don’t even know them? There’s a principle called ignorantia non excusatignorance does not excuse—which is frankly Kafkaesque. If you can be arrested for breaking a law you didn’t even know existed, in what sense can we call this a free society? (People make up strawman counterexamples: “Gee, officer, I didn’t know it was illegal to murder people!” But all you need is a standard of reasonable knowledge and due diligence, which courts already use to make decisions.)

So, in that sense, I absolutely favor deregulation. But my reasons are totally different from libertarians: I don’t want regulations to stop constraining businesses, I want regulations to be so simple and clear that no one can get around them. In the system I envision, you wouldn’t be able to sell fraudulent derivatives, because on page 3 it would clearly say that fraud is illegal and punishable in proportion to the amount of money involved.

But until that happens—and let’s face it, it’s gonna be awhile—we’re stuck with these ridiculous regulations, and that introduces a whole new type of asymmetric information. This is the way that regulations can make our economy less efficient; they distort what we can do not just by making it illegal, but by making it so we don’t know what is illegal.

The wealthy and powerful can hire people to explain—or evade—the regulations, while the rest of us are forced to live with them. You’ve felt this in a small way if you’ve ever gotten a parking ticket and didn’t know why. Asymmetric information strikes again.

Pareto Efficiency: Why we need it—and why it’s not enough

JDN 2456914 PDT 11:45.

I already briefly mentioned the concept in an earlier post, but Pareto-efficiency is so fundamental to both ethics and economics I decided I would spent some more time on explaining exactly what it’s about.

This is the core idea: A system is Pareto-efficient if you can’t make anyone better off without also making someone else worse off. It is Pareto-inefficient if the opposite is true, and you could improve someone’s situation without hurting anyone else.

Improving someone’s situation without harming anyone else is called a Pareto-improvement. A system is Pareto-efficient if and only if there are no possible Pareto-improvements.

Zero-sum games are always Pareto-efficient. If the game is about how we distribute the same $10 between two people, any dollar I get is a dollar you don’t get, so no matter what we do, we can’t make either of us better off without harming the other. You may have ideas about what the fair or right solution is—and I’ll get back to that shortly—but all possible distributions are Pareto-efficient.

Where Pareto-efficiency gets interesting is in nonzero-sum games. The most famous and most important such game is the so-called Prisoner’s Dilemma; I don’t like the standard story to set up the game, so I’m going to give you my own. Two corporations, Alphacomp and Betatech, make PCs. The computers they make are of basically the same quality and neither is a big brand name, so very few customers are going to choose on anything except price. Combining labor, materials, equipment and so on, each PC costs each company $300 to manufacture a new PC, and most customers are willing to buy a PC as long as it’s no more than $1000. Suppose there are 1000 customers buying. Now the question is, what price do they set? They would both make the most profit if they set the price at $1000, because customers would still buy and they’d make $700 on each unit, each making $350,000. But now suppose Alphacomp sets a price at $1000; Betatech could undercut them by making the price $999 and sell twice as many PCs, making $699,000. And then Alphacomp could respond by setting the price at $998, and so on. The only stable end result if they are both selfish profit-maximizers—the Nash equilibrium—is when the price they both set is $301, meaning each company only profits $1 per PC, making $1000. Indeed, this result is what we call in economics perfect competition. This is great for consumers, but not so great for the companies.

If you focus on the most important choice, $1000 versus $999—to collude or to compete—we can set up a table of how much each company would profit by making that choice (a payoff matrix or normal form game in game theory jargon).

A: $999 A: $1000
B: $999 A:$349k

B:$349k

A:$0

B:$699k

B: $1000 A:$699k

B:$0

A:$350k

B:$350k

Obviously the choice that makes both companies best-off is for both companies to make the price $1000; that is Pareto-efficient. But it’s also Pareto-efficient for Alphacomp to choose $999 and the other one to choose $1000, because then they sell twice as many computers. We have made someone worse off—Betatech—but it’s still Pareto-efficient because we couldn’t give Betatech back what they lost without taking some of what Alphacomp gained.

There’s only one option that’s not Pareto-efficient: If both companies charge $999, they could both have made more money if they’d charged $1000 instead. The problem is, that’s not the Nash equilibrium; the stable state is the one where they set the price lower.

This means that only case that isn’t Pareto-efficient is the one that the system will naturally trend toward if both compal selfish profit-maximizers. (And while most human beings are nothing like that, most corporations actually get pretty close. They aren’t infinite, but they’re huge; they aren’t identical, but they’re very similar; and they basically are psychopaths.)

In jargon, we say the Nash equilibrium of a Prisoner’s Dilemma is Pareto-inefficient. That one sentence is basically why John Nash was such a big deal; up until that point, everyone had assumed that if everyone acted in their own self-interest, the end result would have to be Pareto-efficient; Nash proved that this isn’t true at all. Everyone acting in their own self-interest can doom us all.

It’s not hard to see why Pareto-efficiency would be a good thing: if we can make someone better off without hurting anyone else, why wouldn’t we? What’s harder for most people—and even most economists—to understand is that just because an outcome is Pareto-efficient, that doesn’t mean it’s good.

I think this is easiest to see in zero-sum games, so let’s go back to my little game of distributing the same $10. Let’s say it’s all within my power to choose—this is called the ultimatum game. If I take $9 for myself and only give you $1, is that Pareto-efficient? It sure is; for me to give you any more, I’d have to lose some for myself. But is it fair? Obviously not! The fair option is for me to go fifty-fifty, $5 and $5; and maybe you’d forgive me if I went sixty-forty, $6 and $4. But if I take $9 and only offer you $1, you know you’re getting a raw deal.

Actually as the game is often played, you have the choice the say, “Forget it; if that’s your offer, we both get nothing.” In that case the game is nonzero-sum, and the choice you’ve just taken is not Pareto-efficient! Neoclassicists are typically baffled at the fact that you would turn down that free $1, paltry as it may be; but I’m not baffled at all, and I’d probably do the same thing in your place. You’re willing to pay that $1 to punish me for being so stingy. And indeed, if you allow this punishment option, guess what? People aren’t as stingy! If you play the game without the rejection option, people typically take about $7 and give about $3 (still fairer than the $9/$1, you may notice; most people aren’t psychopaths), but if you allow it, people typically take about $6 and give about $4. Now, these are pretty small sums of money, so it’s a fair question what people might do if $100,000 were on the table and they were offered $10,000. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t willing to stand up for fairness; it just means that they’re only willing to go so far. They’ll take a $1 hit to punish someone for being unfair, but that $10,000 hit is just too much. I suppose this means most of us do what Guess Who told us: “You can sell your soul, but don’t you sell it too cheap!”

Now, let’s move on to the more complicated—and more realistic—scenario of a nonzero-sum game. In fact, let’s make the “game” a real-world situation. Suppose Congress is debating a bill that would introduce a 70% marginal income tax on the top 1% to fund a basic income. (Please, can we debate that, instead of proposing a balanced-budget amendment that would cripple US fiscal policy indefinitely and lead to a permanent depression?)

This tax would raise about 14% of GDP in revenue, or about $2.4 trillion a year (yes, really). It would then provide, for every man, woman and child in America, a $7000 per year income, no questions asked. For a family of four, that would be $28,000, which is bound to make their lives better.

But of course it would also take a lot of money from the top 1%; Mitt Romney would only make $6 million a year instead of $20 million, and Bill Gates would have to settle for $2.4 billion a year instead of $8 billion. Since it’s the whole top 1%, it would also hurt a lot of people with more moderate high incomes, like your average neurosurgeon or Paul Krugman, who each make about $500,000 year. About $100,000 of that is above the cutoff for the top 1%, so they’d each have to pay about $70,000 more than they currently do in taxes; so if they were paying $175,000 they’re now paying $245,000. Once taking home $325,000, now only $255,000. (Probably not as big a difference as you thought, right? Most people do not seem to understand how marginal tax rates work, as evinced by “Joe the Plumber” who thought that if he made $250,001 he would be taxed at the top rate on the whole amount—no, just that last $1.)

You can even suppose that it would hurt the economy as a whole, though in fact there’s no evidence of that—we had tax rates like this in the 1960s and our economy did just fine. The basic income itself would inject so much spending into the economy that we might actually see more growth. But okay, for the sake of argument let’s suppose it also drops our per-capita GDP by 5%, from $53,000 to $50,300; that really doesn’t sound so bad, and any bigger drop than that is a totally unreasonable estimate based on prejudice rather than data. For the same tax rate might have to drop the basic income a bit too, say $6600 instead of $7000.

So, this is not a Pareto-improvement; we’re making some people better off, but others worse off. In fact, the way economists usually estimate Pareto-efficiency based on so-called “economic welfare”, they really just count up the total number of dollars and divide by the number of people and call it a day; so if we lose 5% in GDP they would register this as a Pareto-loss. (Yes, that’s a ridiculous way to do it for obvious reasons—$1 to Mitt Romney isn’t worth as much as it is to you and me—but it’s still how it’s usually done.)

But does that mean that it’s a bad idea? Not at all. In fact, if you assume that the real value—the utility—of a dollar decreases exponentially with each dollar you have, this policy could almost double the total happiness in US society. If you use a logarithm instead, it’s not quite as impressive; it’s only about a 20% improvement in total happiness—in other words, “only” making as much difference to the happiness of Americans from 2014 to 2015 as the entire period of economic growth from 1900 to 2000.

If right now you’re thinking, “Wow! Why aren’t we doing that?” that’s good, because I’ve been thinking the same thing for years. And maybe if we keep talking about it enough we can get people to start voting on it and actually make it happen.

But in order to make things like that happen, we must first get past the idea that Pareto-efficiency is the only thing that matters in moral decisions. And once again, that means overcoming the standard modes of thinking in neoclassical economics.

Something strange happened to economics in about 1950. Before that, economists from Marx to Smith to Keynes were always talking about differences in utility, marginal utility of wealth, how to maximize utility. But then economists stopped being comfortable talking about happiness, deciding (for reasons I still do not quite grasp) that it was “unscientific”, so they eschewed all discussion of the subject. Since we still needed to know why people choose what they do, a new framework was created revolving around “preferences”, which are a simple binary relation—you either prefer it or you don’t, you can’t like it “a lot more” or “a little more”—that is supposedly more measurable and therefore more “scientific”. But under this framework, there’s no way to say that giving a dollar to a homeless person makes a bigger difference to them than giving the same dollar to Mitt Romney, because a “bigger difference” is something you’ve defined out of existence. All you can say is that each would prefer to receive the dollar, and that both Mitt Romney and the homeless person would, given the choice, prefer to be Mitt Romney. While both of these things are true, it does seem to be kind of missing the point, doesn’t it?

There are stirrings of returning to actual talk about measuring actual (“cardinal”) utility, but still preferences (so-called “ordinal utility”) are the dominant framework. And in this framework, there’s really only one way to evaluate a situation as good or bad, and that’s Pareto-efficiency.

Actually, that’s not quite right; John Rawls cleverly came up with a way around this problem, by using the idea of “maximin”—maximize the minimum. Since each would prefer to be Romney, given the chance, we can say that the homeless person is worse off than Mitt Romney, and therefore say that it’s better to make the homeless person better off. We can’t say how much better, but at least we can say that it’s better, because we’re raising the floor instead of the ceiling. This is certainly a dramatic improvement, and on these grounds alone you can argue for the basic income—your floor is now explicitly set at the $6600 per year of the basic income.

But is that really all we can say? Think about how you make your own decisions; do you only speak in terms of strict preferences? I like Coke more than Pepsi; I like massages better than being stabbed. If preference theory is right, then there is no greater distance in the latter case than the former, because this whole notion of “distance” is unscientific. I guess we could expand the preference over groups of goods (baskets as they are generally called), and say that I prefer the set “drink Pepsi and get a massage” to the set “drink Coke and get stabbed”, which is certainly true. But do we really want to have to define that for every single possible combination of things that might happen to me? Suppose there are 1000 things that could happen to me at any given time, which is surely conservative. In that case there are 2^1000 = 10^300 possible combinations. If I were really just reading off a table of unrelated preference relations, there wouldn’t be room in my brain—or my planet—to store it, nor enough time in the history of the universe to read it. Even imposing rational constraints like transitivity doesn’t shrink the set anywhere near small enough—at best maybe now it’s 10^20, well done; now I theoretically could make one decision every billion years or so. At some point doesn’t it become a lot more parsimonious—dare I say, more scientific—to think that I am using some more organized measure than that? It certainly feels like I am; even if couldn’t exactly quantify it, I can definitely say that some differences in my happiness are large and others are small. The mild annoyance of drinking Pepsi instead of Coke will melt away in the massage, but no amount of Coke deliciousness is going to overcome the agony of being stabbed.

And indeed if you give people surveys and ask them how much they like things or how strongly they feel about things, they have no problem giving you answers out of 5 stars or on a scale from 1 to 10. Very few survey participants ever write in the comments box: “I was unable to take this survey because cardinal utility does not exist and I can only express binary preferences.” A few do write 1s and 10s on everything, but even those are fairly rare. This “cardinal utility” that supposedly doesn’t exist is the entire basis of the scoring system on Netflix and Amazon. In fact, if you use cardinal utility in voting, it is mathematically provable that you have the best possible voting system, which may have something to do with why Netflix and Amazon like it. (That’s another big “Why aren’t we doing this already?”)

If you can actually measure utility in this way, then there’s really not much reason to worry about Pareto-efficiency. If you just maximize utility, you’ll automatically get a Pareto-efficient result; but the converse is not true because there are plenty of Pareto-efficient scenarios that don’t maximize utility. Thinking back to our ultimatum game, all options are Pareto-efficient, but you can actually prove that the $5/$5 choice is the utility-maximizing one, if the two players have the same amount of wealth to start with. (Admittedly for those small amounts there isn’t much difference; but that’s also not too surprising, since $5 isn’t going to change anybody’s life.) And if they don’t—suppose I’m rich and you’re poor and we play the game—well, maybe I should give you more, precisely because we both know you need it more.

Perhaps even more significant, you can move from a Pareto-inefficient scenario to a Pareto-efficient one and make things worse in terms of utility. The scenario in which the top 1% are as wealthy as they can possibly be and the rest of us live on scraps may in fact be Pareto-efficient; but that doesn’t mean any of us should be interested in moving toward it (though sadly, we kind of are). If you’re only measuring in terms of Pareto-efficiency, your attempts at improvement can actually make things worse. It’s not that the concept is totally wrong; Pareto-efficiency is, other things equal, good; but other things are never equal.

So that’s Pareto-efficiency—and why you really shouldn’t care about it that much.