The following is no mystery: if you want prosperity, steer clear of policies that inhibit production and physical investment. This too: if you want to lift people out of poverty and dependency, don’t promote policies that discourage hiring and work incentives. Yet those are exactly the implications of policies repeatedly advocated by so-called redistributionists. The ignorance flows, in large part, from a distraction, a mere byproduct of economic life that has no direct relation to economic welfare, but upon which followers of Bernie Sanders are absolutely transfixed: income and wealth inequality. Attempts to manipulate the degree of inequality via steeply progressive taxes, transfers and market intervention is a suckers game of short-termism. It ultimately reduces the value of the economy’s capital stock, chases away productive activity, destroys jobs, and leaves us all poorer.
Absolute income growth is a better goal, and encouraging production is the best way to raise incomes in the long-run. Unless envy is your thing, income inequality is largely irrelevant as a policy goal. In “Why and How We Care About Inequality“, John Cochrane emphasizes that inequality may be a symptom of other problems, or perhaps no problem at all. His point is that treating a symptom won’t fix the underlying problem:
“A segment of America is stuck in widespread single motherhood … terrible early-child experiences, awful education, substance abuse, and criminality. 70% of male black high school dropouts will end up in prison, hence essentially unemployable and poor marriage prospects. Less than half are even looking for legal work.
This is a social and economic disaster. And it has nothing to do with whether hedge fund managers fly private or commercial. It is immune to floods of Government cash, and, as Casey Mulligan reminded us, Government programs are arguably as much of the problem as the solution. So are drug laws….“
The writers of the center-left Third Way blog give some details on income growth that might disappoint some progressives. They agree that the emphasis on redistribution is misplaced. Solving economic problems requires a different approach:
“From 1980 to 2010, income gains (after taxes and government transfers are included) favored the wealthy but were still spread across all income brackets: a 53% increase for the bottom quintile; a 41% increase for the next two; a 49% increase for the 4th; and a 90% increase for the richest fifth. Thus, while income inequality may offend our sense of justice, its actual impact on the middle class may be small.
With a singular focus on income inequality, the left’s main solutions are greater re-distribution and a re-writing of the rules to ‘un-rig’ the system. But, however well motivated, some of the biggest ideas into which they are directing their energy do not remotely address the underlying ‘Kodak’ conundrum—how do Americans find their place in a rapidly changing world? In fact, some would actually make the task of increasing shared prosperity significantly harder.“
The hubbub over inequality and redistribution is fueled by misconceptions. One is that the rich face low tax burdens, often lower than the middle class, a mistaken notion that Alan D. Viard debunks using 2013 data from a report from the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO report accounts for double taxation of dividends and capital gains at the corporate level and at the personal level (though capital gains are taxed to individuals now, while the anticipated corporate income is taxed later). The CBO study also accounts for employers’ share of payroll taxes (because it reduces labor income) so as to avoid exaggerating the tax system’s progressivity. Before accounting for federal benefits, which offset the tax burden, the middle 20% of income earners paid an average tax rate of less than 15%, while “the 1%” paid more than 29%. However, after correcting for federal benefits, the middle quintile paid a negative average tax rate, while the top 1% still paid almost 29%. That is a steeply graduated impact.
Rising income inequality in the U.S. is more a matter of changes in household structure than in the distribution of rewards. This conclusion is based on the fact that income inequality has risen steadily over the past 50 years for households, but there has been no change in inequality across individuals. An increasing number of single-person households, primarily women over the age of 65, accounts for rising inequality at the household level. The greedy corporate CEOs of the “occupier” imagination are really not to blame for this trend, though I won’t defend corporate rent-seeking activities intended to insulate themselves from competition.
Measures of income inequality hide another important fact: one’s position in the income distribution is not static. Chelsea German notes that Americans have a high degree of economic mobility. According to a Cornell study, only 6% of individuals in the top 1% in a given year remain there in the following year. German adds that over half of income earners in the U.S. find themselves in the top 10% for at least one year of their working lives.
There are several reasons why redistributionist policies fail to meet objectives and instead reduce opportunities for the presumed beneficiaries to prosper. Dan Mitchell covers several of these issues, citing work on: the rational response of upper-income taxpayers to punitive taxes; the insufficiency of funding an expanded welfare state by merely taxing “the rich”; the diversion of most anti-poverty funds to service providers (rather than directly to the poor); the meager valuation of benefits from recipients of Medicaid, and the fact that the program lacks any favorable impact on mortality and health measures. Mitchell features the “First Theorem of Government” in a sidebar:
“Above all else, the public sector is a racket for the enrichment of insiders, cronies, bureaucrats and interest groups.“
A few years back, the great Thomas Sowell explained “The Fallacy of Redistribution” thusly:
“You can only confiscate the wealth that exists at a given moment. You cannot confiscate future wealth — and that future wealth is less likely to be produced when people see that it is going to be confiscated.“
That future wealth can and should be enjoyed across the income spectrum, but punitive taxes destroy productive capital and jobs.
A great truth about poverty comes from Angela Ranchidi of the American Enterprise Institute: low wages are not at the root of poverty; it’s a lack of jobs. She quotes a Gallup report on this point, relative to the working-age poor in 2014:
“Census data show that, 61.7% did not work at all and another 26.6% worked less than full-time for the entire year. Only 11.7% of poor working-age adults worked full-time for the entire year in 2014. Low wages are not the primary cause of poverty; low work rates are. And if Gallup is correct, the full-time work rate may already be peaking.“
More than 88.3% of the working-age poor were either unemployed or underemployed! And here’s the kicker: redistributionists clamor for policies that would place an even higher floor on wage rates, yet the floor already in place has succeeded in compromising the ability of low-skilled workers to find full-time work.
Cochrane sums up the inequality debate by noting the obvious political motives of progressive redistributionists:
“Finally, why is “inequality” so strongly on the political agenda right now? Here I am not referring to academics. … All of economics has been studying various poverty traps for a generation….
[The] answer seems pretty clear. Because [the politicians and pundits] don’t want to talk about Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, bailouts, debt, the stimulus, the rotten cronyism of energy policy, denial of education to poor and minorities, the abject failure of their policies to help poor and middle class people, and especially sclerotic growth. Restarting a centuries-old fight about “inequality” and “tax the rich,” class envy resurrected from a Huey Long speech in the 1930s, is like throwing a puppy into a third grade math class that isn’t going well. You know you will make it to the bell.
That observation, together with the obvious incoherence of ideas the political inequality writers bring us leads me to a happy thought that this too will pass, and once a new set of talking points emerges we can go on to something else.“