Is Equal Unfair?

JDN 2457492

Much as you are officially a professional when people start paying you for what you do, I think you are officially a book reviewer when people start sending you books for free asking you to review them for publicity. This has now happened to me, with the book Equal Is Unfair by Don Watkins and Yaron Brook. This post is longer than usual, but in order to be fair to the book’s virtues as well as its flaws, I felt a need to explain quite thoroughly.

It’s a very frustrating book, because at times I find myself agreeing quite strongly with the first part of a paragraph, and then reaching the end of that same paragraph and wanting to press my forehead firmly into the desk in front of me. It makes some really good points, and for the most part uses economic statistics reasonably accurately—but then it rides gleefully down a slippery slope fallacy like a waterslide. But I guess that’s what I should have expected; it’s by leaders of the Ayn Rand Institute, and my experience with reading Ayn Rand is similar to that of Randall Monroe (I’m mainly referring to the alt-text, which uses slightly foul language).

As I kept being jostled between “That’s a very good point.”, “Hmm, that’s an interesting perspective.”, and “How can anyone as educated as you believe anything that stupid!?” I realized that there are actually three books here, interleaved:

1. A decent economics text on the downsides of taxation and regulation and the great success of technology and capitalism at raising the standard of living in the United States, which could have been written by just about any mainstream centrist neoclassical economist—I’d say it reads most like John Taylor or Ken Galbraith. My reactions to this book were things like “That’s a very good point.”, and “Sure, but any economist would agree with that.”

2. An interesting philosophical treatise on the meanings of “equality” and “opportunity” and their application to normative economic policy, as well as about the limitations of statistical data in making political and ethical judgments. It could have been written by Robert Nozick (actually I think much of it was based on Robert Nozick). Some of the arguments are convincing, others are not, and many of the conclusions are taken too far; but it’s well within the space of reasonable philosophical arguments. My reactions to this book were things like “Hmm, that’s an interesting perspective.” and “Your argument is valid, but I think I reject the second premise.”

3. A delusional rant of the sort that could only be penned by a True Believer in the One True Gospel of Ayn Rand, about how poor people are lazy moochers, billionaires are world-changing geniuses whose superior talent and great generosity we should all bow down before, and anyone who would dare suggest that perhaps Steve Jobs got lucky or owes something to the rest of society is an authoritarian Communist who hates all achievement and wants to destroy the American Dream. It was this book that gave me reactions like “How can anyone as educated as you believe anything that stupid!?” and “You clearly have no idea what poverty is like, do you?” and “[expletive] you, you narcissistic ingrate!”

Given that the two co-authors are Executive Director and a fellow of the Ayn Rand Institute, I suppose I should really be pleasantly surprised that books 1 and 2 exist, rather than disappointed by book 3.

As evidence of each of the three books interleaved, I offer the following quotations:

Book 1:

“All else being equal, taxes discourage production and prosperity.” (p. 30)

No reasonable economist would disagree. The key is all else being equal—it rarely is.

“For most of human history, our most pressing problem was getting enough food. Now food is abundant and affordable.” (p.84)

Correct! And worth pointing out, especially to anyone who thinks that economic progress is an illusion or we should go back to pre-industrial farming practices—and such people do exist.

“Wealth creation is first and foremost knowledge creation. And this is why you can add to the list of people who have created the modern world, great thinkers: people such as Euclid, Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and a relative handful of others.” (p.90, emph. in orig.)

Absolutely right, though as I’ll get to below there’s something rather notable about that list.

“To be sure, there is competition in an economy, but it’s not a zero-sum game in which some have to lose so that others can win—not in the big picture.” (p. 97)

Yes! Precisely! I wish I could explain to more people—on both the Left and the Right, by the way—that economics is nonzero-sum, and that in the long run competitive markets improve the standard of living of society as a whole, not just the people who win that competition.

Book 2:

“Even opportunities that may come to us without effort on our part—affluent parents, valuable personal connections, a good education—require enormous effort to capitalize on.” (p. 66)

This is sometimes true, but clearly doesn’t apply to things like the Waltons’ inherited billions, for which all they had to do was be born in the right family and not waste their money too extravagantly.

“But life is not a game, and achieving equality of initial chances means forcing people to play by different rules.” (p. 79)

This is an interesting point, and one that I think we should acknowledge; we must treat those born rich differently from those born poor, because their unequal starting positions mean that treating them equally from this point forward would lead to a wildly unfair outcome. If my grandfather stole your grandfather’s wealth and passed it on to me, the fair thing to do is not to treat you and I equally from this point forward—it’s to force me to return what was stolen, insofar as that is possible. And even if we suppose that my grandfather earned far vaster wealth than yours, I think a more limited redistribution remains justified simply to put you and I on a level playing field and ensure fair competition and economic efficiency.

“The key error in this argument is that it totally mischaracterizes what it means to earn something. For the egalitarians, the results of our actions don’t merely have to be under our control, but entirely of our own making. […] But there is nothing like that in reality, and so what the egalitarians are ultimately doing is wiping out the very possibility of earning something.” (p. 193)

The way they use “egalitarian” as an insult is a bit grating, but there clearly are some actual egalitarian philosophers whose views are this extreme, such as G.A. Cohen, James Kwak and Peter Singer. I strongly agree that we need to make a principled distinction between gains that are earned and gains that are unearned, such that both sets are nonempty. Yet while Cohen would seem to make “earned” an empty set, Watkins and Brook very nearly make “unearned” empty—you get what you get, and you deserve it. The only exceptions they seem willing to make are outright theft and, what they consider equivalent, taxation. They have no concept of exploitation, excessive market power, or arbitrage—and while they claim they oppose fraud, they seem to think that only government is capable of it.

Book 3:

“What about government handouts (usually referred to as ‘transfer payments’)?” (p. 23)

Because Social Security is totally just a handout—it’s not like you pay into it your whole life or anything.

“No one cares whether the person who fixes his car or performs his brain surgery or applies for a job at his company is male or female, Indian or Pakistani—he wants to know whether they are competent.” (p.61)

Yes they do. We have direct experimental evidence of this.

“The notion that ‘spending drives the economy’ and that rich people spend less than others isn’t a view seriously entertained by economists,[…]” (p. 110)

The New Synthesis is Keynesian! This is what Milton Friedman was talking about when he said, “We’re all Keynesians now.”

“Because mobility statistics don’t distinguish between those who don’t rise and those who can’t, they are useless when it comes to assessing how healthy mobility is.” (p. 119)

So, if Black people have much lower odds of achieving high incomes even controlling for education, we can’t assume that they are disadvantaged or discriminated against; maybe Black people are just lazy or stupid? Is that what you’re saying here? (I think it might be.)

“Payroll taxes alone amount to 15.3 percent of your income; money that is taken from you and handed out to the elderly. This means that you have to spend more than a month and a half each year working without pay in order to fund other people’s retirement and medical care.” (p. 127)

That is not even close to how taxes work. Taxes are not “taken” from money you’d otherwise get—taxation changes prices and the monetary system depends upon taxation.

“People are poor, in the end, because they have not created enough wealth to make themselves prosperous.” (p. 144)

This sentence was so awful that when I showed it to my boyfriend, he assumed it must be out of context. When I showed him the context, he started swearing the most I’ve heard him swear in a long time, because the context was even worse than it sounds. Yes, this book is literally arguing that the reason people are poor is that they’re just too lazy and stupid to work their way out of poverty.

“No society has fully implemented the egalitarian doctrine, but one came as close as any society can come: Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge.” (p. 207)

Because obviously the problem with the Khmer Rouge was their capital gains taxes. They were just too darn fair, and if they’d been more selfish they would never have committed genocide. (The authors literally appear to believe this.)


So there are my extensive quotations, to show that this really is what the book is saying. Now, a little more summary of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

One good thing is that the authors really do seem to understand fairly well the arguments of their opponents. They quote their opponents extensively, and only a few times did it feel meaningfully out of context. Their use of economic statistics is also fairly good, though occasionally they present misleading numbers or compare two obviously incomparable measures.

One of the core points in Equal is Unfair is quite weak: They argue against the “shared-pie assumption”, which is that we create wealth as a society, and thus the rest of society is owed some portion of the fruits of our efforts. They maintain that this is fundamentally authoritarian and immoral; essentially they believe a totalizing false dichotomy between either absolute laissez-faire or Stalinist Communism.

But the “shared-pie assumption” is not false; we do create wealth as a society. Human cognition is fundamentally social cognition; they said themselves that we depend upon the discoveries of people like Newton and Einstein for our way of life. But it should be obvious we can never pay Einstein back; so instead we must pay forward, to help some child born in the ghetto to rise to become the next Einstein. I agree that we must build a society where opportunity is maximized—and that means, necessarily, redistributing wealth from its current state of absurd and immoral inequality.

I do however agree with another core point, which is that most discussions of inequality rely upon a tacit assumption which is false: They call it the “fixed-pie assumption”.

When you talk about the share of income going to different groups in a population, you have to be careful about the fact that there is not a fixed amount of wealth in a society to be distributed—not a “fixed pie” that we are cutting up and giving around. If it were really true that the rising income share of the top 1% were necessary to maximize the absolute benefits of the bottom 99%, we probably should tolerate that, because the alternative means harming everyone. (In arguing this they quote John Rawls several times with disapprobation, which is baffling because that is exactly what Rawls says.)

Even if that’s true, there is still a case to be made against inequality, because too much wealth in the hands of a few people will give them more power—and unequal power can be dangerous even if wealth is earned, exchanges are uncoerced, and the distribution is optimally efficient. (Watkins and Brook dismiss this contention out of hand, essentially defining beneficent exploitation out of existence.)

Of course, in the real world, there’s no reason to think that the ballooning income share of the top 0.01% in the US is actually associated with improved standard of living for everyone else.

I’ve shown these graphs before, but they bear repeating:

Income shares for the top 1% and especially the top 0.1% and 0.01% have risen dramatically in the last 30 years.


But real median income has only slightly increased during the same period.


Thus, mean income has risen much faster than median income.


While theoretically it could be that the nature of our productivity technology has shifted in such a way that it suddenly became necessary to heap more and more wealth on the top 1% in order to continue increasing national output, there is actually very little evidence of this. On the contrary, as Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel Laureate, you may recall) has documented, the leading cause of our rising inequality appears to be a dramatic increase in rent-seeking, which is to say corruption, exploitation, and monopoly power. (This probably has something to do with why I found in my master’s thesis that rising top income shares correlate quite strongly with rising levels of corruption.)

Now to be fair, the authors of Equal is Unfair do say that they are opposed to rent-seeking, and would like to see it removed. But they have a very odd concept of what rent-seeking entails, and it basically seems to amount to saying that whatever the government does is rent-seeking, whatever corporations do is fair free-market competition. On page 38 they warn us not to assume that government is good and corporations are bad—but actually it’s much more that they assume that government is bad and corporations are good. (The mainstream opinion appears to be actually that both are bad, and we should replace them both with… er… something.)

They do make some other good points I wish more leftists would appreciate, such as the point that while colonialism and imperialism can damage countries that suffer them and make them poorer, they generally do not benefit the countries that commit them and make them richer. The notion that Europe is rich because of imperialism is simply wrong; Europe is rich because of education, technology, and good governance. Indeed, the greatest surge in Europe’s economic growth occurred as the period of imperialism was winding down—when Europeans realized that they would be better off trying to actually invent and produce things rather than stealing them from others.

Likewise, they rightfully demolish notions of primitivism and anti-globalization that I often see bouncing around from folks like Naomi Klein. But these are book 1 messages; any economist would agree that primitivism is a terrible idea, and very few are opposed to globalization per se.

The end of Equal is Unfair gives a five-part plan for unleashing opportunity in America:

1. Abolish all forms of corporate welfare so that no business can gain unfair advantage.

2. Abolish government barriers to work so that every individual can enjoy the dignity of earned success.

3. Phase out the welfare state so that America can once again become the land of self-reliance.

4. Unleash the power of innovation in education by ending the government monopoly on schooling.

5. Liberate innovators from the regulatory shackles that are strangling them.

Number 1 is hard to disagree with, except that they include literally everything the government does that benefits a corporation as corporate welfare, including things like subsidies for solar power that the world desperately needs (or millions of people will die).

Number 2 sounds really great until you realize that they are including all labor standards, environmental standards and safety regulations as “barriers to work”; because it’s such a barrier for children to not be able to work in a factory where your arm can get cut off, and such a barrier that we’ve eliminated lead from gasoline emissions and thereby cut crime in half.

Number 3 could mean a lot of things; if it means replacing the existing system with a basic income I’m all for it. But in fact it seems to mean removing all social insurance whatsoever. Indeed, Watkins and Brook do not appear to believe in social insurance at all. The whole concept of “less fortunate”, “there but for the grace of God go I” seems to elude them. They have no sense that being fortunate in their own lives gives them some duty to help others who were not; they feel no pang of moral obligation whatsoever to help anyone else who needs help. Indeed, they literally mock the idea that human beings are “all in this together”.

They also don’t even seem to believe in public goods, or somehow imagine that rational self-interest could lead people to pay for public goods without any enforcement whatsoever despite the overwhelming incentives to free-ride. (What if you allow people to freely enter a contract that provides such enforcement mechanisms? Oh, you mean like social democracy?)

Regarding number 4, I’d first like to point out that private schools exist. Moreover, so do charter schools in most states, and in states without charter schools there are usually vouchers parents can use to offset the cost of private schools. So while the government has a monopoly in the market share sense—the vast majority of education in the US is public—it does not actually appear to be enforcing a monopoly in the anti-competitive sense—you can go to private school, it’s just too expensive or not as good. Why, it’s almost as if education is a public good or a natural monopoly.

Number 5 also sounds all right, until you see that they actually seem most opposed to antitrust laws of all things. Why would antitrust laws be the ones that bother you? They are designed to increase competition and lower barriers, and largely succeed in doing so (when they are actually enforced, which is rare of late). If you really want to end barriers to innovation and government-granted monopolies, why is it not patents that draw your ire?

They also seem to have trouble with the difference between handicapping and redistribution—they seem to think that the only way to make outcomes more equal is to bring the top down and leave the bottom where it is, and they often use ridiculous examples like “Should we ban reading to your children, because some people don’t?” But of course no serious egalitarian would suggest such a thing. Education isn’t fungible, so it can’t be redistributed. You can take it away (and sometimes you can add it, e.g. public education, which Watkins and Brooks adamantly oppose); but you can’t simply transfer it from one person to another. Money on the other hand, is by definition fungible—that’s kind of what makes it money, really. So when we take a dollar from a rich person and give it to a poor person, the poor person now has an extra dollar. We’ve not simply lowered; we’ve also raised. (In practice it’s a bit more complicated than that, as redistribution can introduce inefficiencies. So realistically maybe we take $1.00 and give $0.90; that’s still worth doing in a lot of cases.)

If attributes like intelligence were fungible, I think we’d have a very serious moral question on our hands! It is not obvious to me that the world is better off with its current range of intelligence, compared to a world where geniuses had their excess IQ somehow sucked out and transferred to mentally disabled people. Or if you think that the marginal utility of intelligence is increasing, then maybe we should redistribute IQ upward—take it from some mentally disabled children who aren’t really using it for much and add it onto some geniuses to make them super-geniuses. Of course, the whole notion is ridiculous; you can’t do that. But whereas Watkins and Brook seem to think it’s obvious that we shouldn’t even if we could, I don’t find that obvious at all. You didn’t earn your IQ (for the most part); you don’t seem to deserve it in any deep sense; so why should you get to keep it, if the world would be much better off if you didn’t? Why should other people barely be able to feed themselves so I can be good at calculus? At best, maybe I’m free to keep it—but given the stakes, I’m not even sure that would be justifiable. Peter Singer is right about one thing: You’re not free to let a child drown in a lake just to keep your suit from getting wet.

Ultimately, if you really want to understand what’s going on with Equal is Unfair, consider the following sentence, which I find deeply revealing as to the true objectives of these Objectivists:

“Today, meanwhile, although we have far more liberty than our feudal ancestors, there are countless ways in which the government restricts our freedom to produce and trade including minimum wage laws, rent control, occupational licensing laws, tariffs, union shop laws, antitrust laws, government monopolies such as those granted to the post office and education system, subsidies for industries such as agriculture or wind and solar power, eminent domain laws, wealth redistribution via the welfare state, and the progressive income tax.” (p. 114)

Some of these are things no serious economist would disagree with: We should stop subsidizing agriculture and tariffs should be reduced or removed. Many occupational licenses are clearly unnecessary (though this has a very small impact on inequality in real terms—licensing may stop you from becoming a barber, but it’s not what stops you from becoming a CEO). Others are legitimately controversial: Economists are currently quite divided over whether minimum wage is beneficial or harmful (I lean toward beneficial, but I’d prefer a better solution), as well as how to properly regulate unions so that they give workers much-needed bargaining power without giving unions too much power. But a couple of these are totally backward, exactly contrary to what any mainstream economist would say: Antitrust laws need to be enforced more, not eliminated (don’t take it from me; take it from that well-known Marxist rag The Economist). Subsidies for wind and solar power make the economy more efficient, not less—and suspiciously Watkins and Brook omitted the competing subsidies that actually are harmful, namely those to coal and oil.

Moreover, I think it’s very revealing that they included the word progressive when talking about taxation. In what sense does making a tax progressive undermine our freedom? None, so far as I can tell. The presence of a tax undermines freedom—your freedom to spend that money some other way. Making the tax higher undermines freedom—it’s more money you lose control over. But making the tax progressive increases freedom for some and decreases it for others—and since rich people have lower marginal utility of wealth and are generally more free in substantive terms in general, it really makes the most sense that, holding revenue constant, making a tax progressive generally makes your people more free.

But there’s one thing that making taxes progressive does do: It benefits poor people and hurts rich people. And thus the true agenda of Equal is Unfair becomes clear: They aren’t actually interested in maximizing freedom—if they were, they wouldn’t be complaining about occupational licensing and progressive taxation, they’d be outraged by forced labor, mass incarceration, indefinite detention, and the very real loss of substantive freedom that comes from being born into poverty. They wouldn’t want less redistribution, they’d want more efficient and transparent redistribution—a shift from the current hodgepodge welfare state to a basic income system. They would be less concerned about the “freedom” to pollute the air and water with impunity, and more concerned about the freedom to breathe clean air and drink clean water.

No, what they really believe is rich people are better. They believe that billionaires attained their status not by luck or circumstance, not by corruption or ruthlessness, but by the sheer force of their genius. (This is essentially the entire subject of chapter 6, “The Money-Makers and the Money-Appropriators”, and it’s nauseating.) They describe our financial industry as “fundamentally moral and productive” (p.156)—the industry that you may recall stole millions of homes and laundered money for terrorists. They assert that no sane person could believe that Steve Wozniack got lucky—I maintain no sane person could think otherwise. Yes, he was brilliant; yes, he invented good things. But he had to be at the right place at the right time, in a society that supported and educated him and provided him with customers and employees. You didn’t build that.

Indeed, perhaps most baffling is that they themselves seem to admit that the really great innovators, such as Newton, Einstein, and Darwin, were scientists—but scientists are almost never billionaires. Even the common counterexample, Thomas Edison, is largely false; he mainly plagiarized from Nikola Tesla and appropriated the ideas of his employees. Newton, Einstein and Darwin were all at least upper-middle class (as was Tesla, by the way—he did not die poor as is sometimes portrayed), but they weren’t spectacularly mind-bogglingly rich the way that Steve Jobs and Andrew Carnegie were and Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos are.

Some people clearly have more talent than others, and some people clearly work harder than others, and some people clearly produce more than others. But I just can’t wrap my head around the idea that a single man can work so hard, be so talented, produce so much that he can deserve to have as much wealth as a nation of millions of people produces in a year. Yet, Mark Zuckerberg has that much wealth. Remind me again what he did? Did he cure a disease that was killing millions? Did he colonize another planet? Did he discover a fundamental law of nature? Oh yes, he made a piece of software that’s particularly convenient for talking to your friends. Clearly that is worth the GDP of Latvia. Not that silly Darwin fellow, who only uncovered the fundamental laws of life itself.

In the grand tradition of reducing complex systems to simple numerical values, I give book 1 a 7/10, book 2 a 5/10, and book 3 a 2/10. Equal is Unfair is about 25% book 1, 25% book 2, and 50% book 3, so altogether their final score is, drumroll please: 4/10. Maybe read the first half, I guess? That’s where most of the good stuff is.

How about we listen to the Nobel Laureate when we set our taxes?

JDN 2457321 EDT 11:20

I know I’m going out on a limb here, but I think it would generally be a good thing if we based our tax system on the advice of Nobel Laureate economists. Joseph Stiglitz wrote a tax policy paper for the Roosevelt Institution last year that describes in detail how our tax system could be reformed to simultaneously restore economic growth, reduce income inequality, promote environmental sustainability, and in the long run even balance the budget. What’s more, he did the math (I suppose Nobel Laureate economists are known for that), and it looks like his plan would actually work.

The plan is good enough that I think it’s worth going through in some detail.

He opens by reminding us that our “debt crisis” is of our own making, the result of politicians (and voters) who don’t understand economics:

“But we should be clear that these crises – which have resulted in a government shutdown and a near default on the national debt – are not economic but political. The U.S. is not like Greece, unable to borrow to fund its debt and deficit. Indeed, the U.S. has been borrowing at negative real interest rates.”

Stiglitz pulls no punches against bad policies, and isn’t afraid to single out conservatives:

“We also show that some of the so-called reforms that conservatives propose would be counterproductive – they could simultaneously reduce growth and economic welfare and increase unemployment and inequality. It would be better to have no reform than these reforms.”

A lot of the news media keep trying to paint Bernie Sanders as a far-left radical candidate (like this article in Politico calling his hometown the “People’s Republic of Burlington”), because he says things like this: “in recent years, over 99 percent of all new income generated in the economy has gone to the top 1 percent.”

But the following statement was not said by Bernie Sanders, it was said by Joseph Stiglitz, who I will remind you one last time is a world-renowned Nobel Laureate economist:

“The weaknesses in the labor market are reflected in low wages and stagnating incomes. That helps explain why 95 percent of the increase in incomes in the three years after the recovery officially began went to the upper 1 percent. For most Americans, there has been no recovery.”

It was also Stiglitz who said this:

“The American Dream is, in reality, a myth. The U.S. has some of the worst inequality across generations (social mobility) among wealthy nations. The life prospects of a young American are more dependent on the income and education of his parents than in other advanced countries.”

In this country, we have reached the point where policies supported by the analysis of world-renowned economists is considered far-left radicalism, while the “mainstream conservative” view is a system of tax policy that is based on pure fantasy, which has been called “puppies and rainbows” by serious policy analysts and “voodoo economics” by yet another Nobel Laureate economist. A lot of very smart people don’t understand what’s happening in our political system, and want “both sides” to be “equally wrong”, but that is simply not the case: Basic facts of not just social science (e.g. Keynesian monetary policy), but indeed natural science (evolutionary biology, anthropogenic climate change) are now considered “political controversies” because the right wing doesn’t want to believe them.

But let’s get back to the actual tax plan Stiglitz is proposing. He is in favor of raising some taxes and lowering others, spending more on some things and less on other things. His basic strategy is actually quite simple: Raise taxes with low multipliers and cut taxes with high multipliers. Raise spending with high multipliers and cut spending with low multipliers.

“While in general taxes take money out of the system, and therefore have a deflationary bias, some taxes have a larger multiplier than others, i.e. lead to a greater reduction in aggregate demand per dollar of revenue raised. Taxes on the rich and superrich, who save a large fraction of their income, have the least adverse effect on aggregate demand. Taxes on lower income individuals have the most adverse effect on aggregate demand.”

In other words, by making the tax system more progressive, we can directly stimulate economic growth while still increasing the amount of tax revenue we raise. And of course we have plenty of other moral and economic reasons to prefer progressive taxation.

Stiglitz tears apart the “job creator” myth:

“It is important to dispel a misunderstanding that one often hears from advocates of lower taxes for the rich and corporations, which contends that the rich are the job producers, and anything that reduces their income will reduce their ability and incentive to create jobs. First, at the current time, it is not lack of funds that is holding back investment. It is not even a weak and dysfunctional financial sector. America’s large corporations are sitting on more than $2 trillion in cash. What is holding back investment, especially by large corporations, is the lack of demand for their products.”

Stiglitz talks about two principles of taxation to follow:

First is the Generalized Henry George Principle, that we should focus taxes on things that are inelastic, meaning their supply isn’t likely to change much with the introduction of a tax. Henry George favored taxing land, which is quite inelastic indeed. The reason we do this is to reduce the economic distortions created by a tax; the goal is to collect revenue without changing the number of real products that are bought and sold. We need to raise revenue and we want to redistribute income, but we want to do it without creating unnecessary inefficiencies in the rest of the economy.

Second is the Generalized Polluter Pays Principle, that we should tax things that have negative externalities—effects on other people that are harmful. When a transaction causes harm to others who were not party to the transaction, we should tax that transaction in an amount equal to the harm that it would cause, and then use that revenue to offset the damage. In effect, if you hurt someone else, you should have to pay to clean up your own mess. This makes obvious moral sense, but it also makes good economic sense; taxing externalities can improve economic efficiency and actually make everyone better off. The obvious example is again pollution (the original Polluter Pays Principle), but there are plenty of other examples as well.

Stiglitz of course supports taxes on pollution and carbon emissions, which really should be a no-brainer. They aren’t just good for the environment, they would directly increase economic efficiency. The only reason we don’t have comprehensive pollution taxes (or something similar like cap-and-trade) is again the political pressure of right-wing interests.

Stiglitz focuses in particular on the externalities of the financial system, the boom-and-bust cycle of bubble, crisis, crash that has characterized so much of our banking system for generations. With a few exceptions, almost every major economic crisis has been preceded by some sort of breakdown of the financial system (and typically widespread fraud by the way). It is not much exaggeration to say that without Wall Street there would be no depressions. Externalities don’t get a whole lot bigger than that.

Stiglitz proposes a system of financial transaction taxes that are designed to create incentives against the most predatory practices in finance, especially the high-frequency trading in which computer algorithms steal money from the rest of the economy thousands of times per second. Even a 0.01% tax on each financial transaction would probably be enough to eliminate this particular activity.

He also suggests the implementation of “bonus taxes” which disincentivize paying bonuses, which could basically be as simple as removing the deductions placed during the Clinton administration (in a few years are we going to have to say “the first Clinton administration”?) that exempt “performance-based pay” from most forms of income tax. All pay is performance-based, or supposed to be. There should be no special exemption for bonuses and stock options.

Stiglitz also proposes a “bank rescue fund” which would be something like an expansion of the FDIC insurance that banks are already required to have, but designed as catastrophe insurance for the whole macroeconomy. Instead of needing bailed out from general government funds, banks would only be bailed out from a pool of insurance funds they paid in themselves. This could work, but honestly I think I’d rather reduce the moral hazard even more by saying that we will never again bail out banks directly, but instead bail out consumers and real businesses. This would probably save banks anyway (most people don’t default on debts if they can afford to pay them), and if it doesn’t, I don’t see why we should care. The only reason banks exist is to support the real economy; if we can support the real economy without them, they deserve to die. That basic fact seems to have been lost somewhere along the way, and we keep talking about how to save or stabilize the financial system as if it were valuable unto itself.

Stiglitz also proposes much stricter regulations on credit cards, which would require them to charge much lower transaction fees and also pay a portion of their transaction revenue in taxes. I think it’s fair to ask whether we need credit cards at all, or if there’s some alternative banking system that would allow people to make consumer purchases without paying 20% annual interest. (It seems like there ought to be, doesn’t it?)

Next Stiglitz gets to his proposal to reform the corporate income tax. Like many of us, he is sick of corporations like Apple and GE with ten and eleven-figure profits paying little or no taxes by exploiting a variety of loopholes. He points out some of the more egregious ones, like the “step up of basis at death” which allows inherited capital to avoid taxation (personally, I think both morally and economically the optimal inheritance tax rate is 100%!), as well as the various loopholes on offshore accounting which allow corporations to design and sell their products in the US, even manufacture them here, and pay taxes as if all their work were done in the Cayman Islands. He also points out that the argument that corporate taxes disincentivize investment is ridiculous, because most investment is financed by corporate bonds which are tax-deductible.

Stiglitz departs from most other economists in that he actually proposes raising the corporate tax rate itself. Most economists favor cutting the rate on paper, then closing the loopholes to ensure that the new rate is actually paid. Stiglitz says this is not enough, and we must both close the loopholes and increase the rate.

I’m actually not sure I agree with him on this; the incidence of corporate taxes is not very well-understood, and I think there’s a legitimate worry that taxing Apple will make iPhones more expensive without actually taking any money from Tim Cook. I think it would be better to get rid of the corporate tax entirely and then dramatically raise the marginal rates on personal income, including not only labor income but also all forms of capital income. Instead of taxing Apple hoping it will pass through to Tim Cook, I say we just tax Tim Cook. Directly tax his $4 million salary and $70 million in stock options.

Stiglitz does have an interesting proposal to introduce “rent-seeking” taxes that specifically apply to corporations which exercise monopoly or oligopoly power. If you can actually get this to work, it’s very clever; you could actually create a market incentive for corporations to support their own competition—and not in the sense of collusion but in the sense of actually trying to seek out more competitive markets in order to avoid the monopoly tax. Unfortunately, Stiglitz is a little vague on how we’d actually pull that off.

One thing I do agree with Stiglitz on is the use of refundable tax credits to support real investment. Instead of this weird business about not taxing dividends and capital gains in the hope that maybe somehow this will support real investment, we actually give tax credits specifically to companies that build factories or hire more workers.

Stiglitz also does a good job of elucidating the concept of “corporate welfare”, officially called “tax expenditures”, in which subsidies for corporations are basically hidden in the tax code as rebates or deductions. This is actually what Obama was talking about when he said “spending in the tax code”, (he did not invent the concept of tax expenditures), but since he didn’t explain himself well even Jon Stewart accused him of Orwellian Newspeak. Economically a refundable tax rebate of $10,000 is exactly the same thing as a subsidy of $10,000. There are some practical and psychological differences, but there are no real economic differences. If you’re still confused about tax expenditures, the Center for American Progress has a good policy memo on the subject.

Stiglitz also has some changes to make to the personal income tax, all of which I think are spot-on. First we increase the marginal rates, particularly at the very top. Next we equalize rates on all forms of income, including capital income. Next, we remove most, if not all, of the deductions that allow people to avoid paying the rate it says on paper. Finally, we dramatically simplify the tax code so that the majority of people can file a simplified return which basically just says, “This is my income. This is the tax rate for that income. This is what I owe.” You wouldn’t have to worry about itemizing your student loans or mortgage payments or whatever else; just tally up your income and look up your rate. As he points out, this would save a lot of people a lot of stress and also remove a lot of economic distortions.

He talks about how we can phase out the mortgage-interest deduction in particular, because it’s clearly inefficient and regressive but it’s politically popular and dropping it suddenly could lead to another crisis in housing prices.

Stiglitz has a deorbit for anyone who thinks capital income should not be taxed:

“There is, moreover, no justification for taxing those who work hard to earn a living at a higher rate than those who derive their income from speculation.”

By equalizing rates on labor and capital income, he estimates we could raise an additional $130 billion per year—just shy of what it would take to end world hunger. (Actually some estimates say it would be more than enough, others that it would be about half what we need. It’s definitely in the ballpark, however.)

Stiglitz actually proposes making a full deduction of gross household income at $100,000, meaning that the vast majority of Americans would pay no income tax at all. This is where he begins to lose me, because it necessarily means we aren’t going to raise enough revenue by income taxes alone.

He proposes to make up the shortfall by introducing a value-added tax, a VAT. I have to admit a lot of countries have these (including most of Europe) and seem to do all right with them; but I never understood why they are so popular among economists. They are basically sales taxes, and it’s very hard to make any kind of sales tax meaningfully progressive. In fact, they are typically regressive, because rich people spend a smaller proportion of their income than poor people do. Unless we specifically want to disincentivize buying things (and a depression is not the time to do that!), I don’t see why we would want to switch to a sales tax.

At the end of the paper Stiglitz talks about the vital difference between short-term spending cuts and long-term fiscal sustainability:

“Thus, policies that promote output and employment today also contribute to future growth – particularly if they lead to more investment. Thus, austerity measures that take the form of cutbacks in spending on infrastructure, technology, or education not only weaken the economy today, but weaken it in the future, both directly (through the obvious impacts, for example, on the capital stock) but also indirectly, through the diminution in human capital that arises out of employment or educational experience. […] Mindless “deficit fetishism” is likely to be counterproductive. It will weaken the economy and prove counterproductive to raising revenues because the main reason that we are in our current fiscal position is the weak economy.”

It amazes me how many people fail to grasp this. No one would say that paying for college is fiscally irresponsible, because we know that all that student debt will be repaid by your increased productivity and income later on; yet somehow people still think that government subsidies for education are fiscally irresponsible. No one would say that it is a waste of money for a research lab to buy new equipment in order to have a better chance at making new discoveries, yet somehow people still think it is a waste of money for the government to fund research. The most legitimate form of this argument is “crowding-out”, the notion that the increased government spending will be matched by an equal or greater decrease in private spending; but the evidence shows that many public goods—like education, research, and infrastructure—are currently underfunded, and if there is any crowding-out, it is much smaller than the gain produced by the government investment. Crowding-out is theoretically possible but empirically rare.

Above all, now is not the time to fret about deficits. Now is the time to fret about unemployment. We need to get more people working; we need to create jobs for those who are already seeking them, better jobs for those who have them but want more, and opportunities for people who have given up searching for work to keep trying. To do that, we need spending, and we will probably need deficits. That’s all right; once the economy is restored to full capacity then we can adjust our spending to balance the budget (or we may not even need to, if we devise taxes correctly).

Of course, I fear that most of these policies will fall upon deaf ears; but Stiglitz calls us to action:

“We can reform our tax system in ways that will strengthen the economy today, address current economic and social problems, and strengthen our economy for the future. The economic agenda is clear. The question is, will the vested interests which have played such a large role in creating the current distorted system continue to prevail? Do we have the political will to create a tax system that is fair and serves the interests of all Americans?”

The winner-takes-all effect

JDN 2457054 PST 14:06.

As I write there is some sort of mariachi band playing on my front lawn. It is actually rather odd that I have a front lawn, since my apartment is set back from the road; yet there is the patch of grass, and there is the band playing upon it. This sort of thing is part of the excitement of living in a large city (and Long Beach would seem like a large city were it not right next to the sprawling immensity that is Los Angeles—there are more people in Long Beach than in Cleveland, but there are more people in greater Los Angeles than in Sweden); with a certain critical mass of human beings comes unexpected pieces of culture.

The fact that people agglomerate in this way is actually relevant to today’s topic, which is what I will call the winner-takes-all effect. I actually just finished reading a book called The Winner-Take-All Society, which is particularly horrifying to read because it came out in 1996. That’s almost twenty years ago, and things were already bad; and since then everything it describes has only gotten worse.

What is the winner-takes-all effect? It is the simple fact that in competitive capitalist markets, a small difference in quality can yield an enormous difference in return. The third most popular soda drink company probably still makes drinks that are pretty good, but do you have any idea what it is? There’s Coke, there’s Pepsi, and then there’s… uh… Dr. Pepper, apparently! But I didn’t know that before today and I bet you didn’t either. Now think about what it must be like to be the 15th most popular soda drink company, or the 37th. That’s the winner-takes-all effect.

I don’t generally follow football, but since tomorrow is the Super Bowl I feel some obligation to use that example as well. The highest-paid quarterback is Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks, who is signing onto a five-year contract worth $110 million ($22 million a year). In annual income that will make him pass Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears who has a seven-year contract worth $127 million ($18.5 million a year). This shift may have something to do with the fact that the Seahawks are in the Super Bowl this year and the Bears are not (they haven’t since 2007). Now consider what life is like for most football players; the median income of football players is most likely zero (at least as far as football-related income), and the median income of NFL players—the cream of the crop already—is $770,000; that’s still very good money of course (more than Krugman makes, actually! But he could make more, if he were willing to sell out to Wall Street), but it’s barely 1/30 of what Wilson is going to be making. To make that million-dollar salary, you need to be the best, of the best, of the best (sir!). That’s the winner-takes-all effect.

To go back to the example of cities, it is for similar reasons that the largest cities (New York, Los Angeles, London, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Delhi) become packed with tens of millions of people while others (Long Beach, Ann Arbor, Cleveland) get hundreds of thousands and most (Petoskey, Ketchikan, Heber City, and hundreds of others you’ve never heard of) get only a few thousand. Beyond that there are thousands of tiny little hamlets that many don’t even consider cities. The median city probably has about 10,000 people in it, and that only because we’d stop calling it a city if it fell below 1,000. If we include every tiny little village, the median town size is probably about 20 people. Meanwhile the largest city in the world is Tokyo, with a greater metropolitan area that holds almost 38 million people—or to put it another way almost exactly as many people as California. Huh, LA doesn’t seem so big now does it? How big is a typical town? Well, that’s the thing about this sort of power-law distribution; the concept of “typical” or “average” doesn’t really apply anymore. Each little piece of the distribution has basically the same shape as the whole distribution, so there isn’t a “typical” size or scale. That’s the winner-takes-all effect.

As they freely admit in the book, it isn’t literally that a single winner takes everything. That is the theoretical maximum level of wealth inequality, and fortunately no society has ever quite reached it. The closest we get in today’s society is probably Saudi Arabia, which recently lost its king—and yes I do mean king in the fullest sense of the word, a man of virtually unlimited riches and near-absolute power. His net wealth was estimated at $18 billion, which frankly sounds low; still even if that’s half the true amount it’s oddly comforting to know that he is still not quite as rich as Bill Gates ($78 billion), who earned his wealth at least semi-legitimately in a basically free society. Say what you will about intellectual property rents and market manipulation—and you know I do—but they are worlds away from what Abdullah’s family did, which was literally and directly robbed from millions of people by the power of the sword. Mostly he just inherited all that, and he did implement some minor reforms, but make no mistake: He was ruthless and by no means willing to give up his absolute power—he beheaded dozens of political dissidents, for example. Saudi Arabia does spread their wealth around a little, such that basically no one is below the UN poverty lines of $1.25 and $2 per day, but about a fourth of the population is below the national poverty line—which is just about the same distribution of wealth as what we have in the US, which actually makes me wonder just how free and legitimate our markets really are.

The winner-takes-all effect would really be more accurately described as the “top small fraction takes the vast majority” effect, but that isn’t nearly as catchy, now is it?

There are several different causes that can all lead to this same result. In the book, Robert Frank and Philip Cook argue that we should not attribute the cause to market manipulation, but in fact to the natural functioning of competitive markets. There’s something to be said for this—I used to buy the whole idea that competitive markets are the best, but increasingly I’ve been seeing ways that less competitive markets can make better overall outcomes.

Where they lose me is in arguing that the skyrocketing compensation packages for CEOs are due to their superior performance, and corporations are just being rational in competing for the best CEOs. If that were true, we wouldn’t find that the rank correlation between the CEO’s pay and the company’s stock performance is statistically indistinguishable from zero. Actually even a small positive correlation wouldn’t prove that the CEOs are actually performing well; it could just be that companies that perform well are willing to pay their CEOs more—and stock option compensation will do this automatically. But in fact the correlation is so tiny as to be negligible; corporations would be better off hiring a random person off the street and paying them $50,000 for all the CEO does for their stock performance. If you adjust for the size of the company, you find that having a higher-paid CEO is positively related to performance for small startups, but negatively correlated for large well-established corporations. No, clearly there’s something going on here besides competitive pay for high performance—corruption comes to mind, which you’ll remember was the subject of my master’s thesis.

But in some cases there isn’t any apparent corruption, and yet we still see these enormously unequal distributions of income. Another good example of this is the publishing industry, in which J.K. Rowling can make over $1 billion (she donated enough to charity to officially lose her billionaire status) but most authors make little or nothing, particularly those who can’t get published in the first place. I have no reason to believe that J.K. Rowling acquired this massive wealth by corruption; she just sold an awful lot of booksover 100 million of the first Harry Potter book alone.

But why would she be able to sell 100 million while thousands of authors write books that are probably just as good or nearly so make nothing? Am I just bitter and envious, as Mitt Romney would say? Is J.K. Rowling actually a million times as good an author as I am?

Obviously not, right? She may be better, but she’s not that much better. So how is it that she ends up making a million times as much as I do from writing? It feels like squaring the circle: How can markets be efficient and competitive, yet some people are being paid millions of times as others despite being only slightly more productive?

The answer is simple but enormously powerful: positive feedback.Once you start doing well, it’s easier to do better. You have what economists call an economy of scale. The first 10,000 books sold is the hardest; then the next 10,000 is a little easier; the next 10,000 a little easier still. In fact I suspect that in many cases the first 10% growth is harder than the second 10% growth and so on—which is actually a much stronger claim. For my sales to grow 10% I’d need to add like 20 people. For J.K. Rowling’s sales to grow 10% she’d need to add 10 million. Yet it might actually be easier for J.K. Rowling to add 10 million than for me to add 20. If not, it isn’t much harder. Suppose we tried by just sending out enticing tweets. I have about 100 Twitter followers, so I’d need 0.2 sales per follower; she has about 4 million, so she’d need an average of 2.5 sales per follower. That’s an advantage for me, percentage-wise—but if we have the same uptake rate I sell 20 books and she sells 800,000.

If you have only a handful of book sales like I do, those sales are static; but once you cross that line into millions of sales, it’s easy for that to spread into tens or even hundreds of millions. In the particular case of books, this is because it spreads by word-of-mouth; say each person who reads a book recommends it to 10 friends, and you only read a book if at least 2 of your friends recommended it. In a city of 100,000 people, if you start with 50 people reading it, odds are that most of those people don’t have friends that overlap and so you stop at 50. But if you start at 50,000, there is bound to be a great deal of overlap; so then that 50,000 recruits another 10,000, then another 10,000, and pretty soon the whole 100,000 have read it. In this case we have what are called network externalitiesyou’re more likely to read a book if your friends have read it, so the more people there are who have read it, the more people there are who want to read it. There’s a very similar effect at work in social networks; why does everyone still use Facebook, even though it’s actually pretty awful? Because everyone uses Facebook. Less important than the quality of the software platform (Google Plus is better, and there are some third-party networks that are likely better still) is the fact that all your friends and family are on it. We all use Facebook because we all use Facebook? We all read Harry Potter books because we all read Harry Potter books? The first rule of tautology club is…

Languages are also like this, which is why I can write this post in English and yet people can still read it around the world. English is the winner of the language competition (we call it the lingua franca, as weird as that is—French is not the lingua franca anymore). The losers are those hundreds of New Guinean languages you’ve never heard of, many of which are dying. And their distribution obeys, once again, a power-law. (Individual words actually obey a power-law as well, which makes this whole fractal business delightfully ever more so.)
Network externalities are not the only way that the winner-takes-all effect can occur, though I think it is the most common. You can also have economies of scale from the supply side, particularly in the case of information: Recording a song is a lot of time and effort, but once you record a song, it’s trivial to make more copies of it. So that first recording costs a great deal, while every subsequent recording costs next to nothing. This is probably also at work in the case of J.K. Rowling and the NFL; the two phenomena are by no means mutually exclusive. But clearly the sizes of cities are due to network externalities: It’s quite expensive to live in a big city—no supply-side economy of scale—but you want to live in a city where other people live because that’s where friends and family and opportunities are.

The most worrisome kind of winner-takes-all effect is what Frank and Cook call deep pockets: Once you have concentration of wealth in a few hands, those few individuals can now choose their own winners in a much more literal sense: the rich can commission works of art from their favorite artists, exacerbating the inequality among artists; worse yet they can use their money to influence politicians (as the Kochs are planning on spending $900 million—$3 for every person in America—to do in 2016) and exacerbate the inequality in the whole system. That gives us even more positive feedback on top of all the other positive feedbacks.

Sure enough, if you run the standard neoclassical economic models of competition and just insert the assumption of economies of scale, the result is concentration of wealth—in fact, if nothing about the rules prevents it, the result is a complete monopoly. Nor is this result in any sense economically efficient; it’s just what naturally happens in the presence of economies of scale.

Frank and Cook seem most concerned about the fact that these winner-take-all incomes will tend to push too many people to seek those careers, leaving millions of would-be artists, musicians and quarterbacks with dashed dreams when they might have been perfectly happy as electrical engineers or high school teachers. While this may be true—next week I’ll go into detail about prospect theory and why human beings are terrible at making judgments based on probability—it isn’t really what I’m most concerned about. For all the cost of frustrated ambition there is also a good deal of benefit; striving for greatness does not just make the world better if we succeed, it can make ourselves better even if we fail. I’d strongly encourage people to have backup plans; but I’m not going to tell people to stop painting, singing, writing, or playing football just because they’re unlikely to make a living at it. The one concern I do have is that the competition is so fierce that we are pressured to go all in, to not have backup plans, to use performance-enhancing drugs—they may carry awful risks, but they also work. And it’s probably true, actually, that you’re a bit more likely to make it all the way to the top if you don’t have a backup plan. You’re also vastly more likely to end up at the bottom. Is raising your probability of being a bestselling author from 0.00011% to 0.00012% worth giving up all other career options? Skipping chemistry class to practice football may improve your chances of being an NFL quarterback from 0.000013% to 0.000014%, but it will also drop your chances of being a chemical engineer from 95% (a degree in chemical engineering almost guarantees you a job eventually) to more like 5% (it’s hard to get a degree when you flunk all your classes).

Frank and Cook offer a solution that I think is basically right; they call it positional arms control agreements. By analogy with arms control agreements between nations—and what is war, if not the ultimate winner-takes-all contest?—they propose that we use taxation and regulation policy to provide incentives to make people compete less fiercely for the top positions. Some of these we already do: Performance-enhancing drugs are banned in professional sports, for instance. Even where there are no regulations, we can use social norms: That’s why it’s actually a good thing that your parents rarely support your decision to drop out of school and become a movie star.

That’s yet another reason why progressive taxation is a good idea, as if we needed another; by paring down those top incomes it makes the prospect of winning big less enticing. If NFL quarterbacks only made 10 times what chemical engineers make instead of 300 times, people would be a lot more hesitant to give up on chemical engineering to become a quarterback. If top Wall Street executives only made 50 times what normal people make instead of 5000, people with physics degrees might go back to actually being physicists instead of speculating on stock markets.

There is one case where we might not want fewer people to try, and that is entrepreneurship. Most startups fail, and only a handful go on to make mind-bogglingly huge amounts of money (often for no apparent reason, like the Snuggie and Flappy Bird), yet entrepreneurship is what drives the dynamism of a capitalist economy. We need people to start new businesses, and right now they do that mainly because of a tiny chance of a huge benefit. Yet we don’t want them to be too unrealistic in their expectations: Entrepreneurs are much more optimistic than the general population, but the most successful entrepreneurs are a bit less optimistic than other entrepreneurs. The most successful strategy is to be optimistic but realistic; this outperforms both unrealistic optimism and pessimism. That seems pretty intuitive; you have to be confident you’ll succeed, but you can’t be totally delusional. Yet it’s precisely the realistic optimists who are most likely to be disincentivized by a reduction in the top prizes.

Here’s my solution: Let’s change it from a tiny change of a huge benefit to a large chance of a moderately large benefit. Let’s reward entrepreneurs for trying—with standards for what constitutes a really serious, good attempt rather than something frivolous that was guaranteed to fail. Use part of the funds from the progressive tax as a fund for angel grants, provided to a large number of the most promising entrepreneurs. It can’t be a million-dollar prize for the top 100. It needs to be more like a $50,000 prize for the top 100,000 (which would cost $5 billion a year, affordable for the US government). It should be paid at the proposal phase; the top 100,000 business plans receive the funding and are under no obligation to repay it. It has to be enough money that someone can rationally commit themselves to years of dedicated work without throwing themselves into poverty, and it has to be confirmed money so that they don’t have to worry about throwing themselves into debt. As for the upper limit, it only needs to be small enough that there is still an incentive for the business to succeed; but even with a 99% tax Mark Zuckerberg would still be a millionaire, so the rewards for success are high indeed.

The good news is that we actually have such a system to some extent. For research scientists rather than entrepreneurs, NSF grants are pretty close to what I have in mind, but at present they are a bit too competitive: 8,000 research grants with a median of $130,000 each and a 20% acceptance rate isn’t quite enough people—the acceptance rate should be higher, since most of these proposals are quite worthy. Still, it’s close, and definitely a much better incentive system than what we have for entrepreneurs; there are almost 12 million entrepreneurs in the United States, starting 6 million businesses a year, 75% of which fail before they can return their venture capital. Those that succeed have incomes higher than the general population, with a median income of around $70,000 per year, but most of this is accounted for by the fact that entrepreneurs are more educated and talented than the general population. Once you factor that in, successful entrepreneurs have about 50% more income on average, but their standard deviation of income is also 60% higher—so some are getting a lot and some are getting very little. Since 75% fail, we’re talking about a 25% chance of entering an income distribution that’s higher on average but much more variable, and a 75% chance of going through a period with little or no income at all—is it worth it? Maybe, maybe not. But if you could get a guaranteed $50,000 for having a good idea—and let me be clear, only serious proposals that have a good chance of success should qualify—that deal sounds an awful lot better.