How to respond to dog whistles

Oct 21 JDN 2458413

Political messaging has grown extremely sophisticated. The dog whistle technique is particularly powerful one: it allows you to say the same thing to two different groups and have them each hear what they wanted to hear. The term comes from the gadget used in training canines, which emits sounds at a frequency which humans can’t hear but dogs can. Similar concepts have been around for a long time, but the word wasn’t used for this specific meaning until the 1990s.

There was once a time when politicians could literally say different things to different groups, but mass media has made that effectively impossible. When Mitt Romney tried to do this, it destroyed his (already weak) campaign. So instead they find ways to convey two different meanings, while saying the same words.

Classic examples of this include “law and order” and “states’ rights”, which have always carried hidden racist connotations, yet on their face sound perfectly reasonable. “Family values” is another one.

Trump is particularly inelegant at this; his dog whistles often seem to drop into the audible frequency range, as when he called undocumented immigrants (or possibly gang members?) “animals” and tweeted about “caravans” of immigrants, and above all when he said “they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists”. (Frankly, does that even count as a dog whistle?) He’s a little less obvious in his deployment of “globalist” as a probable anti-Semitic slur.

How should we respond to this kind of coded language?

It’s not as simple as you might think. It’s not always easy to tell what is a dog whistle. Someone talking about crime could be trying to insinuate something about minorities… or, they could just be talking about crime. Someone complaining about immigration could be trying to dehumanize immigrants… or, they could just want a change in our border policy. Accusations of “globalism” could be coded anti-Semitism… or they could just be nationalism.
It’s also easy to accuse someone of using dog whistles even if they probably aren’t: It is now commonplace for the right wing to argue that “common-sense gun control” means confiscating all handguns (when it in fact means universal background checks, mandatory safety classes, and perhaps assault weapon bans and magazine limits, all of which are quite popular even among gun owners), or to argue that “safe, legal, and rare” is just a Trojan horse for unrestricted free abortion (when in fact “safe, legal, and rare” is the overwhelming majority view among Americans). Indeed, it’s quite probable that many of the things that the left wing has taken as dog whistles by Trump were actually overreactions—Trump is bigoted, but not especially so by the standards of old White Republican men. The best reasons to want Trump out of office involve his authoritarianism, his corruption, and his incompetence, not his bigotry. Foreign policy and climate change should be issues that overwhelm basically everything else—these are millions of lives on the line—and they are the two issues that Trump gets most decisively wrong.

The fact that it can be difficult to tell which statements are dog-whistles is not a bug but a feature: It provides plausible deniability.

If you can structure your speech so that it will be heard by your base as supporting a strong ideological platform, but when the words are analyzed they will be innocuous enough that no one can directly prove your extremism, you can have your cake and eat it too. Even if journalists go on to point out the dog whistles in your speech, moderates on your side of the fence might not hear the same dog whistles, and then just become convinced that the journalists are overreacting. And they might even be overreacting.

Instead, I think there are two things we need to do, which are distinct but complementary.’

1. Ask for clarification.

Whether you are in a personal conversation with a friend who is spouting talking points, or a journalist interviewing a politician running for office, there will come opportunities where you can directly respond to a potential dog whistle.
Do not accuse them of using a dog whistle—even if you are confident that they are. That will only make them defensive, and make you appear to be the aggressor. Instead, ask them firmly, but calmly:

What exactly do you mean by that statement?”

If they ignore the question or try to evade it, ask again, a little more firmly. If they evade again, ask again. Keep asking until they answer you or literally force you to shut up. Be confident, but calm and poised. Now they look like the aggressor—and above all, they sound like they have something to hide.

Note also that if it turns out not to be a dog whistle, they will likely not be offended by your request and will have a perfectly reasonable clarification. For example:

“What did you mean when you said you’re worried about Muslim immigrants?”

“Well, I mean that Muslim societies often have very regressive norms surrounding gender and LGBT rights, and many Muslim immigrants have difficulty assimilating into our liberal values. I think we need to spend more effort finding ways to integrate Muslims into our community and disabuse them of harmful cultural norms.”

“What did you mean when you said you are worried about law and order?”

“I mean that gang violence in several of our inner cities is really out of control, and we need to be working on both investing more in policing and finding better methods of crime prevention in order to keep these communities safe.”

“What ‘states’ rights’ are you particularly concerned about, Senator?”

“I don’t like that the federal government thinks it can impose laws against marijuana based on an absurdly broad reading of the Interstate Commerce Clause. I don’t think it’s right that legitimate businesses in California and Colorado have to operate entirely in cash because federal regulations won’t let them put their money into banks without fear of having it confiscated.”

You may even find that you still disagree with the clarified statement, but hopefully it can be a reasonable disagreement, rather than a direct conflict over fundamental values.

2. State your own positive case.

This is one you can probably do even if you don’t actually get the opportunity to engage directly with people on the other side.

I was actually surprised to learn this, but apparently the empirical data shows that including messages of social justice in your political platform makes it more popular, even among moderates.
This means that we don’t have to respond to innuendo with innuendo—we can come out and say that we think a given policy is bad because it will hurt women or Black people. Economic populism is good too, but we don’t need to rely entirely upon that.

To be clear, we should not say that the policy is designed to hurt women or Black people—even if we think that is likely to be true—for at least two reasons: First, we can’t actually prove that, except in very rare cases, so it makes our argument inherently more tendentious; and second, it makes our whole mode of argumentation more aggressive and less charitable. We should always at least consider the possibility that our opponent’s intentions are noble, and unless the facts utterly force us to abandon that view it should probably be our working assumption.

This means that we don’t even necessarily have to come out and challenge dog whistles. We just need to make a better positive case ourselves. While they are making vague, ambiguous claims about “cleaning up our cities” and “making America great”, we can lay out explicit policy plans for reducing unemployment, poverty, and carbon emissions.

Hillary Clinton almost did this—but she didn’t do it well enough. She relied too heavily on constituents being willing to read detailed plans on her website, instead of summarizing them in concise, pithy talking points to put in headlines. Her line Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right?” was indeed taken out of contextbut she should have pushed harder by making an actual slogan, like “End coal burning—save coal communities.” (I literally came up with that in five minutes. She had hundreds of professional campaign staff working for her and they couldn’t do better?) The media did butcher her statements—but she didn’t correct them by putting slogans on yard signs or giving stump speeches in Appalachia.

Indeed, the news media didn’t do her any favors—they spent literally more time talking about her emails than every actual policy issued combined, and not by a small margin. But we can’t rely on the news media—and we don’t have to, in the age of blogs and social media. Instead of assuming that everyone already agrees with us and we will win because we deserve to, we need to be doing what actually works at conveying our message and making sure that we win by the largest margin possible.

Why the Republican candidates like flat income tax—and we really, really don’t

JDN 2456160 EDT 13:55.

The Republican Party is scrambling to find viable Presidential candidates for next year’s election. The Democrats only have two major contenders: Hillary Clinton looks like the front-runner (and will obviously have the most funding), but Bernie Sanders is doing surprisingly well, and is particularly refreshing because he is running purely on his principles and ideas. He has no significant connections, no family dynasty (unlike Jeb Bush and, again, Hillary Clinton) and not a huge amount of wealth (Bernie’s net wealth is about $500,000, making him comfortably upper-middle class; compare to Hillary’s $21.5 million and her husband’s $80 million); but he has ideas that resonate with people. Bernie Sanders is what politics is supposed to be. Clinton’s campaign will certainly raise more than his; but he has already raised over $4 million, and if he makes it to about $10 million studies suggest that additional spending above that point is largely negligible. He actually has a decent chance of winning, and if he did it would be a very good sign for the future of America.

But the Republican field is a good deal more contentious, and the 19 candidates currently running have been scrambling to prove that they are the most right-wing in order to impress far-right primary voters. (When the general election comes around, whoever wins will of course pivot back toward the center, changing from, say, outright fascism to something more like reactionism or neo-feudalism. If you were hoping they’d pivot so far back as to actually be sensible center-right capitalists, think again; Hillary Clinton is the only one who will take that role, and they’ll go out of their way to disagree with her in every way they possibly can, much as they’ve done with Obama.) One of the ways that Republicans are hoping to prove their right-wing credentials is by proposing a flat income tax and eliminating the IRS.

Unlike most of their proposals, I can see why many people think this actually sounds like a good idea. It would certainly dramatically reduce bureaucracy, and that’s obviously worthwhile since excess bureaucracy is pure deadweight loss. (A surprising number of economists seem to forget that government does other things besides create excess bureaucracy, but I must admit it does in fact create excess bureaucracy.)

Though if they actually made the flat tax rate 20% or even—I can’t believe this is seriously being proposed—10%, there is no way the federal government would have enough revenue. The only options would be (1) massive increases in national debt (2) total collapse of government services—including their beloved military, mind you, or (3) directly linking the Federal Reserve quantitative easing program to fiscal policy and funding the deficit with printed money. Of these, 3 might not actually be that bad (it would probably trigger some inflation, but actually we could use that right now), but it’s extremely unlikely to happen, particularly under Republicans. In reality, after getting a taste of 2, we’d clearly end up with 1. And then they’d be complaining about the debt and clamor for more spending cuts, more spending cuts, ever more spending cuts, but there would simply be no way to run a functioning government on 10% of GDP in anything like our current system. Maybe you could do it on 20%—maybe—but we currently spend more like 35%, and that’s already a very low amount of spending for a First World country. The UK is more typical at 47%, while Germany is a bit low at 44%; Sweden spends 52% and France spends a whopping 57%. Anyone who suggests we cut government spending from 35% to 20% needs to explain which 3/7 of government services are going to immediately disappear—not to mention which 3/7 of government employees are going to be immediately laid off.

And then they want to add investment deductions; in general investment deductions are a good thing, as long as you tie them to actual investments in genuinely useful things like factories and computer servers. (Or better yet, schools, research labs, or maglev lines, but private companies almost never invest in that sort of thing, so the deduction wouldn’t apply.) The kernel of truth in the otherwise ridiculous argument that we should never tax capital is that taxing real investment would definitely be harmful in the long run. As I discussed with Miles Kimball (a cognitive economist at Michigan and fellow econ-blogger I hope to work with at some point), we could minimize the distortionary effects of corporate taxes by establishing a strong deduction for real investment, and this would allow us to redistribute some of this enormous wealth inequality without dramatically harming economic growth.

But if you deduct things that aren’t actually investments—like stock speculation and derivatives arbitrage—then you reduce your revenue dramatically and don’t actually incentivize genuinely useful investments. This is the problem with our current system, in which GE can pay no corporate income tax on $108 billion in annual profit—and you know they weren’t using all that for genuinely productive investment activities. But then, if you create a strong enforcement system for ensuring it is real investment, you need bureaucracy—which is exactly what the flat tax was claimed to remove. At the very least, the idea of eliminating the IRS remains ridiculous if you have any significant deductions.

Thus, the benefits of a flat income tax are minimal if not outright illusory; and the costs, oh, the costs are horrible. In order to have remotely reasonable amounts of revenue, you’d need to dramatically raise taxes on the majority of people, while significantly lowering them on the rich. You would create a direct transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, increasing our already enormous income inequality and driving millions of people into poverty.

Thus, it would be difficult to more clearly demonstrate that you care only about the interests of the top 1% than to propose a flat income tax. I guess Mitt Romney’s 47% rant actually takes the cake on that one though (Yes, all those freeloading… soldiers… and children… and old people?).

Many Republicans are insisting that a flat tax would create a surge of economic growth, but that’s simply not how macroeconomics works. If you steeply raise taxes on the majority of people while cutting them on the rich, you’ll see consumer spending plummet and the entire economy will be driven into recession. Rich people simply don’t spend their money in the same way as the rest of us, and the functioning of the economy depends upon a continuous flow of spending. There is a standard neoclassical economic argument about how reducing spending and increasing saving would lead to increased investment and greater prosperity—but that model basically assumes that we have a fixed amount of stuff we’re either using up or making more stuff with, which is simply not how money works; as James Kroeger cogently explains on his blog “Nontrivial Pursuits”, money is created as it is needed; investment isn’t determined by people saving what they don’t spend. Indeed, increased consumption generally leads to increased investment, because our economy is currently limited by demand, not supply. We could build a lot more stuff, if only people could afford to buy it.

And that’s not even considering the labor incentives; as I already talked about in my previous post on progressive taxation, there are two incentives involved when you increase someone’s hourly wage. On the one hand, they get paid more for each hour, which is a reason to work; that’s the substitution effect. But on the other hand, they have more money in general, which is a reason they don’t need to work; that’s the income effect. Broadly speaking, the substitution effect dominates at low incomes (about $20,000 or less), the income effect dominates at high incomes (about $100,000 or more), and the two effects cancel out at moderate incomes. Since a tax on your income hits you in much the same way as a reduction in your wage, this means that raising taxes on the poor makes them work less, while raising taxes on the rich makes them work more. But if you go from our currently slightly-progressive system to a flat system, you raise taxes on the poor and cut them on the rich, which would mean that the poor would work less, and the rich would also work less! This would reduce economic output even further. If you want to maximize the incentive to work, you want progressive taxes, not flat taxes.

Flat taxes sound appealing because they are so simple; even the basic formula for our current tax rates is complicated, and we combine it with hundreds of pages of deductions and credits—not to mention tens of thousands of pages of case law!—making it a huge morass of bureaucracy that barely anyone really understands and corporate lawyers can easily exploit. I’m all in favor of getting rid of that; but you don’t need a flat tax to do that. You can fit the formula for a progressive tax on a single page—indeed, on a single line: r = 1 – I^-p

That’s it. It’s simple enough to be plugged into any calculator that is capable of exponents, not to mention efficiently implemented in Microsoft Excel (more efficiently than our current system in fact).

Combined with that simple formula, you could list all of the sensible deductions on a couple of additional pages (business investments and educational expenses, mostly—poverty should be addressed by a basic income, not by tax deductions on things like heating and housing, which are actually indirect corporate subsidies), along with a land tax (one line: $3000 per hectare), a basic income (one more line: $8,000 per adult and $4,000 per child), and some additional excise taxes on goods with negative externalities (like alcohol, tobacco, oil, coal, and lead), with a line for each; then you can provide a supplementary manual of maybe 50 pages explaining the detailed rules for applying each of those deductions in unusual cases. The entire tax code should be readable by an ordinary person in a single sitting no longer than a few hours. That means no more than 100 pages and no more than a 7th-grade reading level.

Why do I say this? Isn’t that a ridiculous standard? No, it is a Constitutional imperative. It is a fundamental violation of your liberty to tax you according to rules you cannot reasonably understand—indeed, bordering on Kafkaesque. While this isn’t taxation without representation—we do vote for representatives, after all—it is something very much like it; what good is the ability to change rules if you don’t even understand the rules in the first place? Nor would it be all that difficult: You first deduct these things from your income, then plug the result into this formula.

So yes, I absolutely agree with the basic principle of tax reform. The tax code should be scrapped and recreated from scratch, and the final product should be a primary form of only a few pages combined with a supplementary manual of no more than 100 pages. But you don’t need a flat tax to do that, and indeed for many other reasons a flat tax is a terrible idea, particularly if the suggested rate is 10% or 15%, less than half what we actually spend. The real question is why so many Republican candidates think that this will appeal to their voter base—and why they could actually be right about that.

Part of it is the entirely justified outrage at the complexity of our current tax system, and the appealing simplicity of a flat tax. Part of it is the long history of American hatred of taxes; we were founded upon resisting taxes, and we’ve been resisting taxes ever since. In some ways this is healthy; taxes per se are not a good thing, they are a bad thing, a necessary evil.

But those two things alone cannot explain why anyone would advocate raising taxes on the poorest half of the population while dramatically cutting them on the top 1%. If you are opposed to taxes in general, you’d cut them on everyone; and if you recognize the necessity of taxation, you’d be trying to find ways to minimize the harm while ensuring sufficient tax revenue, which in general means progressive taxation.

To understand why they would be pushing so hard for flat taxes, I think we need to say that many Republicans, particularly those in positions of power, honestly do think that rich people are better than poor people and we should always give more to the rich and less to the poor. (Maybe it’s partly halo effect, in which good begets good and bad begets bad? Or maybe just world theory, the ingrained belief that the world is as it ought to be?)

Romney’s 47% rant wasn’t an exception; it was what he honestly believes, what he says when he doesn’t know he’s on camera. He thinks that he earned every penny of his $250 million net wealth; yes, even the part he got from marrying his wife and the part he got from abusing tax laws, arbitraging assets and liquidating companies. He thinks that people who live on $4,000 or even $400 a year are simply lazy freeloaders, who could easily work harder, perhaps do some arbitrage and liquidation of their own (check out these alleged “rags to riches” stories including the line “tried his hand at mortgage brokering”), but choose not to, and as a result deserve what they get. (It’s important to realize just how bizarre this moral attitude truly is; even if I thought you were the laziest person on Earth, I wouldn’t let you starve to death.) He thinks that the social welfare programs which have reduced poverty but never managed to eliminate it are too generous—if he even thinks they should exist at all. And in thinking these things, he is not some bizarre aberration; he is representing an entire class of people, nearly all of whom vote Republican.

The good news is, these people are still in the minority. They hold significant sway over the Republican primary, but will not have nearly as much impact in the general election. And right now, the Republican candidates are so numerous and so awful that I have trouble seeing how the Democrats could possibly lose. (But please, don’t take that as a challenge, you guys.)

 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.