Populism, Patrimonialism and US politics (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

Nuance is nearly always appealing to academics. For a long time, that was true of my approach to economic issues, particularly including income distribution. When presented with simplistic populist solutions to inequality like “Make the rich pay!”, I was inclined to responses along the lines of “It’s more complicated than that”.

A big problem with “Make the rich pay!” is that with the kind of income distribution that prevailed in the mid-to-late 20th century, any change to income tax that would raise significant revenue would have to apply to the top quintile (20 per cent) of the income distribution. People in the top quintile of the income distribution mostly derive their income from (typically professional or para-professional) employment, don’t think of themselves as rich, and aren’t, in general, seen this way by others. So, the slogan didn’t match the implied policy.

But with the rise of the patrimonial society that’s largely ceased to be the case. The top 1 per cent of the US population now get more than 20 per cent of all pre-tax income, considerably more than the total revenue of the Federal government. Within that group, the top 0.1 per cent have done better than everyone else, and the top 0.01 per cent even better.

So, taxing the 1 per cent more makes sense. I responded a little while ago to a piece trying to argue increasing the top marginal tax rate would make no difference to inequality. And while I was drafting this post, the NY Times came out with an article that reached broadly the same conclusion as mine.

There’s nothing inherently ludicrous in the suggestion that the very rich should pay most or all of the costs of sustaining a system that benefits them so greatly[^1]. And, as in the 1920s, the very rich are different from everyone else. Their wealth is derived primarily from capital, or from control over capital (as business owners or from the financial sector). And, while most of the current cohort of ultra-wealthy did not inherit large fortunes, that’s an inevitable consequence of the fact that there weren’t many large fortunes to inherit until recently. As Piketty demonstrates, a society dominated by large accumulations of wealth will inevitably one in which inheritance, rather than effort, education or talent, determines life outcomes.

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Thinking the unthinkable

Thirty odd years ago, Richard Cockett wrote a classic analysis of the role of UK think tanks, most notably the Institute of Economic Affairs, in the economic counter-revolution that ushered in the present era of market liberalism. The crucial “unthinkable” idea put forward by the thinktanks was that profit-driven firms might do a better job of providing a variety of services that were then part of the public sector. This contrasted with the dominant view that any failings of the public sector were the result of specific problems such as poor management that could be overcome by better oversight, organizational restructuring and so on.

The resulting policies of privatisation, corporatisation, competitive tendering and contracting, PPPs and so on have transformed the public sector. Their success has also transformed the public debate, rendering their own ideas as part of the common sense[1] of the political class, and making other ideas unthinkable.

The case of for-profit education provides an example. There is now overwhelming evidence that for-profit education has been a disastrous failure wherever it has been tried, and particularly where for-profit firms can gain access to public funds through policies designed to enhance “consumer choice”. Here are some recent examples:

* A New York Times report pointing out that for-profit universities are getting millions of dollars in public funds every month despite a sustained track record of fraud and failure

* One of many reports from Sweden, until recently the poster child for the for-profit sector, now in a state of crisis, with declining performance an growing inequality

* A Senate Committee report, describing “rampant abuse, accelerating costs, and doubling of bad debt” under the FEE-HELP scheme for vocational education

The common element is that the abuses are well known and long-standing, but the proposed remedy is more of the regulation that has failed in the past. The unthinkable option is to shut off the flow of public funds to the for-profit sector and return to the combination of public and non-profit provision that has worked so well in the past.

Of course, once this unthinkable thought is allowed into public debate, the entire premise of National Competition Policy, based on the idea that “contestable” markets are invariably good for the public, would be cast into question. That would open up a reassessment of reforms in electricity, telecommunications, water, health and many other services provided successfully by the public sector over the course of the 20th century.

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Adani out of excuses

Environment Minister Greg Hunt has just given approval to Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee Basin. This decision is sure to be challenged in court, but presumably the lawyers have been over the decision carefully, to fix up the errors that saw Hunt’s earlier approval overturned.

Assuming the decision stands up, Adani will be in the position of the dog that catches the car it’s been chasing. Adani and its advocates, like the Institute of Public Affairs, have been telling anyone who’ll listen that their marvellous project is being held up by “green tape”. The reality is that the project is as dead as a doornail.

No one will buy the coal it produces at a price that covers even the marginal cost of extraction. No bank will fund the deal: in fact, almost every potential financial institution that might provide funds has already announced a refusal (something almost unprecedented in the world of finance). Adani’s existing bankers, the Coommonwealth, walked away recently (or, in Adani’s telling, was pushed). All the contractors working on the project have been sacked, mostly without any public announcement

Most recently, Adani’s announcement of a proposed contract with Downer EDI has fallen into limbo. The contracts were supposed to be signed by 30 September, but nothing has happened. There’s a reference in the announcement to environmental approvals, so perhaps the contract will go ahead now, but, based on past form, this seems unlikely.

Adani would have done better, in PR terms, to pull the plug when the courts overturned Hunt’s initial approval. Perhaps they have a secret plan to salvage something from this mess, but it’s hard to see how this can work.

Lots of different things

For no particular reason, I’ve been very busy in the past few days, commenting on this and that.

There’s this piece on the recently announced (but still secret) Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

Also, this SMH article by Clancy Yeates, citing my criticisms of the Productivity Commission case against penalty rates.

And, Campus Morning Mail links to my criticism of the bodies representing and regulating post-school education.

Would a significant increase in the top (US) marginal income tax rate substantially alter income inequality?


This, you might think, qualifies as another in the series “Short Answers to Silly Questions”. But a Brookings Paper study by William G. Gale, Melissa S. Kearney, and Peter R. Orszag reaches the opposite conclusion. (Hat tip: Harry Clarke).

The study looks at increasing the top marginal tax rate (currently 39.6, applicable to incomes above $400k for singles), with the strongest option being an increase to 50 per cent. The proceeds are assumed to be redistributed to households in the bottom 20 per cent of the income distribution.

The headline finding is that the Gini coefficient is barely changed, as are other popular measures including the 99/50 ratio (the ratio of income at the 99-th percentile to 50-th percentile, that is the median). But the 99/10 ratio and 90/10 ratios change a lot, from 50 and 17 under current law to 37 and 12.5 with the redistribution.

What does this mean? Two things:

(i) As is well known, the Gini coefficient is a lousy measure of income inequality, much more sensitive to the middle of the income distribution than to the tails
(ii) The proposed redistribution would substantially improve the welfare of the poor, with most of the burden being borne by taxpayers in or near the top 0.1 per cent.

It’s obvious, as the authors note, that the 90-50 measure won’t change, since neither group is affected (there’s no simulation of behavioral responses which might have indirect effects). But, since the 99-th percentile income is very close to $400k, there’s very little impact on this group either. But the tax, as modelled, raises a lot of money from the ultra-rich incomes. As a result, distributing the proceeds at the bottom of the distribution raises incomes substantially, which explains the big changes in the 90-10 and 99-10 ratios.

The real lesson to be learned here, one I came to pretty slowly myself is that old-style measures looking at quintiles or even percentiles of the income distribution are no longer very relevant. The real question, in the economy of Capital in the 21st Century is how much should go to the ultra-rich.