Tag Archives: Laffer

By George P. Brockway, originally published September 9, 1988

1988-9-9 George Bush's New Trojan Horse title

GEORGE [H.W.] BUSH has the distinction of introducing the only tax issue into this fall’s Presidential campaign.

For anyone whose interest in government or economics goes beyond personalities, taxes are endlessly fascinating. The power to tax is the power to destroy – and also the power to create. It is a sign of the shallowness of our society that the eyes of so many people of all ages and both sexes glaze over when the subject comes up. It is a sign of the shallowness of Bush’s understanding – or the deviousness of his intentions – that he wants to upset one of the best features of the 1986 tax law, which treats capital gains as ordinary income. He wants to tax them at 15 per cent – the lowest rate since the grand Depression days of Herbert Hoover.

A tax – the StampTax – crystallized the colonists’ dissatisfaction with England and led to the American Revolution. Another tax – the so-called Tariff of Abominations – led to the nullification crisis of 1832, and ultimately to the American Civil War. In both cases much more than taxes was involved; yet taxes were central issues in the great wars that made and preserved our nation.

Taxation can serve one or both of two purposes: It can raise revenue to pay the costs of government, and it can encourage or discourage various activities. The Revolution was fought (in part) because the Stamp Tax did the former, the Civil War (in part) because the tariff did the latter. In 1767, John Dickinson wrote in the second of his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania that before the Stamp Tax, taxes “were always imposed with design to restrain the commerce of one part that was injurious to another, and thus promote the general welfare. The raising of a revenue thereby was never intended.” In contast, in 1832, South Carolina passed its Ordinance of Secession that denounced the tariff because of “bounties to classes and individuals … at the expense of other classes and individuals,” and espoused the theory of taxation for revenue only.

A more general theory appears in Alexander Hamilton‘s classic Report on Manufactures (1791): “[T]he power to raise money is plenary[1] and indefinite, and the objects to which it may be appropriated are no less comprehensive than the payment of the public debt, and the providing for the common defense and general welfare.”

All three of these theories are involved in Bush’s tender concern for capital gains. Of the three, he has pushed most strongly the one dealing with revenue. In this he is supported by Treasury Department Research Paper No. 8801, “The Direct Revenue Effects of Capital Gains Taxation, which argues that a lower rate brings in higher revenues. There are opposing views, specifically those of the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office. And much private ink has been spilt on both sides.

On one level, the question is an extreme case of that raised by the Laffer Curve, and of Peter Peterson‘s claim that the rich pay more taxes when the rate is lower (see “In for a Penny, In for a Pound,” NL, June 13). The case is extreme because Bush’s proposal would cut the capital gains rate roughly in half, requiring capital gains “realizations” to double just to keep revenues running in the same place.

The latest figures the Treasury research paper gives us to work with are those of 1985, when the marginal rate was 20 per cent, capital gains realizations were about $169 billion, and the revenue raised was about $24 billion. Since 20 per cent of$169 billion would be almost $34 billion instead of $24 billion, it is obvious that the capital gains tax, even though admittedly mostly falling on the superrich, was paid by many whose Adjusted Gross Income was less than the $175,251 then needed to boost a married couple into the top bracket. Obviously, too, once the new tax law settles down and a married couple with an Adjusted Gross Income of $29,751 finds themselves in the top bracket (28 per cent), practically everyone with any capital gains will be paying the top rate.

Neither you nor I nor even George Bush knows what the future will bring. It is probable that realizations were up in 1986 and down in 1987. A large part of what was realized in 1986 (including everything I cashed in) was in anticipation of 1987’s higher rates, while a large part of what was realized in 1987 was losses in the stock market’s Oktoberfest (me, too). It is likely that realizations this year will be greater. No matter: For Bush’s scheme to work, they must more than double what they otherwise would be. The question I ask is: Do we want that to happen?

To answer that question we have to look at where capital gains come from. They come about in two ways: (1) a company retains and reinvests its income instead of paying it out in dividends, thus increasing its net worth and, presumably, the market value of its shares; or (2) goods (especially real estate and works of art) increase in value because of market shifts or inflation, thus tending to lock holders into property they might otherwise have wanted to sell. It is received doctrine that the first method should be encouraged, and that adverse personal consequences of the second should be mitigated; hence the special treatment of capital gains. In Britain, and generally on the Continent, they are not taxed at all, making George Bush more moderate than he may find congenial.

A company that reinvests its income grows. The more companies grow, the more the economy grows: more goods, more jobs, more profits. Assuming that for a given company expansion makes sense, the necessary capital can be raised by borrowing, by selling new shares of stock, or by retaining earnings. Interest payments on borrowings are a deductible business expense, while dividends on stock are not. On the other hand, interest payments are a fixed expense, while dividends, again, are not. Balancing the foregoing considerations, a fairly prudent and sanguine management will opt for borrowing, but a company that can satisfy its stockholders with capital gains will enjoy the best of both worlds by relying on its retained earnings.

In addition, it is said that the possibility of capital gains attracts both entrepreneurs and investors to new businesses, which are the economy’s hope for the future.

Since retained earnings are rarely enough to do the job for a rapidly growing concern, its real choice is between issuing new stock and shouldering new loans. There would be no problem at all if interest payments were not a deductible business expense. The 1986 tax law has partially eliminated it as a personal deduction. I’ve made the case for eliminating it for business, too (see, “A Tax Increase by Any Other Name,” NL, November 24, 1984[2]) and shall only outline it here. In brief, the deduction, although it seems to subsidize the borrower, in fact subsidizes the lender. Without the subsidy, interest rates would have to fall, because few could afford the raw rate.

Moreover, the subsidy is meaningful only to an already profitable company, given that a new enterprise typically operates at a loss for some time and can’t afford to borrow at all. It has no net income from which to deduct the interest expense, and therefore has to pay the usurious raw rate on whatever it borrows. In sum, if you want to encourage new enterprise, you will eliminate the deduction for interest expense and will consider the treatment of capital gains more important for personal than for business finance.

DOES IT, then, make sense to encourage individuals to seek capital gains twice as eagerly as they seek earned income? What is actually encouraged, of course, is wheeling and dealing. It is not impossible that some good enterprises are thus sponsored that would not have been undertaken otherwise; but it is quite certain that wheeling and dealing raises the cost of capital for all enterprises, new and old, good, bad and indifferent. It is also certain that, whatever the ills we have recently been suffering, they were not caused by a lack of wheeling and dealing.

Finally, it is urged that capital gains are, for most individuals, an unexpected and even unwanted consequence of inflation. The house you bought for $100,000 five years ago can be sold for $200,000 today, which is dandy. But you have to have some place to live, and an equivalent new place will cost an equivalent number of dollars, or $200,000. An ordinary tax on your capital gain (28 per cent under the new law) would leave you $28,000 poorer than you’d have been if you hadn’t moved. Bush would leave you $15,000 poorer, and that is better, but not great. (There are, to be sure, special ways to handle this special problem, and some of them are embodied in the present law.)

Any attempt to offset the general effects of inflation, however, winds up by encouraging it. Conservatives of Bush’s school colors are quick to see that wage increases tied to the cost of living are inflationary. The same is true of capital increases. As a matter of fact, capital increases are even more inflationary for reasons we’ve previously discussed (see “Vale, Volcker,” NL, June 1-15, 1987). The very possibility of capital gains stimulates the frenetic search for more of them; it’s easier than working.

Indeed, it is precisely this frenzy that Bush wants to stimulate. As the Treasury has told us, capital gains realizations in 1985 were $169 billion. On the same realizations, the present rate of 28 per cent would yield $47 billion, and Bush’s rate of 15 per cent would yield $25 billion. For Bush to bring in more revenues than the present rate, he would have to push realizations beyond $340 billion, or more than twice the highest they’ve ever been before.

Since 1966, capital gains realizations have steadily increased, from $31 billion ($67 billion in 1985 dollars) to the present. It happens that, as Professor Hyman P. Minsky points out in his recent book Stabilizing an Unstable Economy, since 1966 “the American economy has intermittently exhibited pervasive instability.” While not necessarily conclusive, the association of these facts is at least suggestive, especially when you remember that instability is another name for the volatility that comes with wheeling and dealing.

Bush deserves a good mark for daring to talk about taxes. But he has offered us another Trojan Horse to make the rich richer. Let’s suppose he succeeds and manages to boost capital gains realizations to $340 billion. Then the after-tax income from capital gains would leap to $289 billion-more than double that of any previous year. As we said in discussing Peter Peterson’s ideas of taxation, this is the way multimillionaires are made.

The New Leader

[1]complete in every respect:  absolute, unqualified

[2] Editor’s note:  The name of this article in print is “The Bottom Line on Tax Reform.” From time-to-time the New Leader replaced the author’s title with another.  This is one case.

By George P. Brockway, originally published April 4, 1988

1988-4-4 On the Matter of Consumption Title



THREE AND A HALF years ago, in THE NEW LEADER of November 26, 1984, to be exact, I made a prophecy that is remarkable among my prophecies in that it has come true. I said we would “start hearing a lot more about the value-added tax-how it is widely used in Europe, how invisible it is in comparison with the sales tax, how comparatively easy it is to collect, how it taxes consumption rather than production …. What we get won’t be called a value-added tax, but what’s in a name?”

Well, the name that seems to have been settled on is consumption tax, and the chorus in support of it is tuning up with a vengeance. For some reason no one bothers to explain, the stock market crash of last October 19 is thought to have provided a suitable occasion for taxing consumption. Everyone from Pierre DuPont to Peter Peterson has solemnly warned us that Wall Street won’t be satisfied with anything else. (If you asked me, I’d say Wall Street has a problem satisfying the rest of us. Who laid the egg, anyhow?)

As a distinguished example of consumption- tax thinking, I cite Robert M. Solow of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who gave the following advice to the next President in a recent issue of the New York Times: “If there is no recession, the first order of business is to make a start on reducing the deficit…. And [the President] should do it by increasing taxes on consumption, not investment …. Because a consumption tax means spending will fall, he must do something to offset that like lower interest rates.”

Now, Solow is not a fool; I don’t think you get to be an MIT professor by being a simpleton. Nevertheless, and putting aside a question of fact (hasn’t a “start on reducing the deficit” already been made?), I ask you to look closely at his two-step policy recommendation. First step: He would tax consumption. In other words, he would reduce the standard of living of the middle class (the poor will presumably not be taxed, at least not much, on necessities, which is what they mostly consume; and the rich won’t be much bothered). Second step: He would lower the interest rate. If the middle class stops consuming there will be a depression, so he would keep them consuming by making it easy for them to borrow. (When liberals propose lowering the interest rate, Wall Street insists that only the impersonal unregulated market can do it, but let that pass.)

Let us suppose Solow’s scheme works. What will the next President have accomplished? (1) The deficit will have been reduced, at best, by the amount of the consumption tax. (2) Since nothing will have been done to stimulate the economy, it will, at best, continue to languish in its present “prosperity.” (3)

Some indebtedness will have been shifted from the nation as a whole to the middle class as individuals. (4)The money borrowed by the middle class will have been lent them by the rich, whose extra dollars will have been left untaxed to better enable them to make this “investment.”

Solow’s scheme is, as the mathematicians say, elegant in its simplicity. But I don’t think it will work, at least not if its purpose is anything other than a transfer of wealth from the middle class to the already wealthy. The scheme would bring about such a transfer; there’s no doubt of that. There would also be some leakage, as the economists say. Because the middle class’ spending money will in effect be taxed twice (once by the consumption tax, then by the interest paid on the borrowed money), spending will be reduced after all, and the proceeds of the consumption tax will be correspondingly reduced. Depending on the new interest rate, the reduction in spending could be very large-large enough to bring on another recession (if you’re timid about saying “depression”).

Now I ask: We already did this, didn’t we? Do we have to go through it all again? We did it in 1981, and we got the depression (I’m not afraid to use the word) of 1982, not to mention the deficit everyone talks about. Those whose attention span is very short may have forgotten about the Laffer Curve, which purported

to show that you could increase tax collections by reducing the rates, and the Kemp- Roth tax bill, which promised to increase investment by cutting taxes, especially of the rich. Those were the heady days of the supply-side theory, but investment didn’t respond as promised. What actually happened was that tax collections fell far below expectations, creating the mega deficit that was covered by bonds paying usurious interest rates, purchased by the rich with their tax-cut windfalls. In effect the rich were given the bonds, just as Solow’s scheme would give the rich the promissory notes of the middle class. It is deja vu.

 Indeed, it is, if Yogi Berra will pardon me, deja vu all over again: The Great Depression was also preceded by tax cuts for the rich. I do not think this is mere coincidence, or mere post hoc, ergo propter hoc. For I am persuaded that there is a fatality about economics that in the end chokes any society making too great a distinction between the rewards of the favored and of the disfavored. It is a commonplace of legal theory that a law must not only be just but also be seen to be just. It is the other way around with economics, where it is more important for a policy to be fair than for it to be accepted as fair. This is particularly true when it comes to policies determining the distribution of a society’s rewards.

As near as we can tell, the Roman mob was appeased, if not altogether satisfied, by bread and circuses; but in the imperial city alone, upwards of 150,000 lived on the dole, while uncounted thousands waited upon the whims of the favored few. Labor power is the ultimate power-and Rome threw it away. In 1928, a year we look back on as a period of idyllic prosperity, almost 60 per cent of American families lived in poverty; then calculated at less than $2,000 a year. Now we have an underclass, and we have a large class of the underemployed. This costs us, and may finally destroy us; yet it would seem that substantial majorities of American voters have been satisfied with current policies. The policies are seen to be fair, but their actual unfairness may be our undoing.

The rich have always had a problem knowing what to do with their money. In times past it could always be invested in land and in improvements thereon. The improvements, whether in the shape of stately homes or scientific agriculture, were craft industries. Each staircase or mantelpiece designed by Grinling Gibbons and carved by him or his apprentices was the subject of an adhoc contract between him and the lord of the manor. There certainly was demand for his work, and this certainly affected how much he could charge; he did not produce for a market, however, nor was he himself an important outlet for what was produced on the estates where he worked.

The problem of today’s rich is different. In the first place, they have not become rich by investing in land-speculating in land, maybe, but accumulating rents, no. In the second place, their riches are vastly greater than the sums necessary to recreate a Chatsworth or a Montacute, should their fancy happen to take that turn. In the third and most important place, industry today is built on mass production: Giant corporations serve giant markets.

The giant markets are crucial; without them the giant corporations cannot exist. Giant markets are masses of people willing and able to buy. Such masses need to include the employees of the giant corporations, and the employees are able to buy only to the extent that they are well paid. Henry Ford talked as if he understood this, but even his shockingly high wages were not enough to raise his employees out of the ranks of the working poor. In any case, his has remained a minority view among American businessmen. The majority view, in recent years embraced by the electorate at large, is that consumption should be curtailed and investment should be encouraged.

IRONICALLY, consumption has nevertheless expanded as the banks have discovered profits to be made in personal loans at usurious interest rates. There are limits, though, and they have been reached in many an industry. Automobile companies struggle to maintain their share of the market, because the market is limited, and because the industry’s present capacity is much greater than the market. Steel mills, all over the world, are closed down or running at a fraction of capacity. Agriculture produces more than could be consumed even if somehow the idiocies that permit widespread starvation could be overcome.

The inevitable consequence of limited markets is limited opportunities for productive investment. Hence, as we’ve remarked here before, the rich have more money than they know what to do with, and so do the massive pension and charitable funds. Besides, the glittering gains from speculating in a churning stock market are enormous. In the eventual crash the too-much money of some of the rich and of some of the funds disappears; on October 19 perhaps as much as a trillion dollars disappeared forever. The Reagan revolution created a deficit to give this money to people who couldn’t use it.

The appalling fact is that practically everyone seems to want a repeat performance. It would appear that the first eight months of 1987, when the Dow went from under 2,000 to over 2,700, was the happiest period in millions of tawdry lives. Every day the “financial” news was a joy. Individuals with a few shares of a mutual fund and college presidents with great fortunes in their care were equally delighted. Economists, who gave the stock market a prominent place in their models, looked upward. Brokers stood tall. Arbitragers stood taller. Tens of millions more, although not directly involved, shared in the euphoria.

Despite the shock of October 19, these people seem determined to do it again. More stridently than ever the claim is being made that the stock market is both the heart blood and the brains not only of the national economy but of the whole free world; that our liberty as well as our prosperity depends on its ineffable wisdom; that any attempt to control it would, in the tasteless cliché, throw out the baby with the bath water.

Worse, we hear again the cry to tax consumption, with the deliberate purpose of destroying the mass market modem industry depends upon-which would foreclose rational investment opportunities and bring on a new fever of speculation. Some of this can be explained as simple greed. But beyond that there is a pathological psychology whose etiology I can’t even imagine.

The New Leader

Originally published October 17, 1983

CONSTANT readers of this column have foreseen since THE NEW LEADER issue of March 8, 1982, what last month burst like a paper bag full of cold water over the heads of the self-assured enthusiasts for Reaganomics. The New York Times, evidently relying on Federal Reserve Board figures, announced that our national rate of saving has steadily declined in spite of the massive supply-side tax cuts that were supposed to stimulate it.

This development has caused some bewilderment. Norman B. Ture, former undersecretary of the Treasury for tax and economic affairs, who was the “architect” of the 1981 tax cut, said the news was disturbing and surprising. “It’s very difficult to understand,” he added. Other worthies were tempted to dispute the figures, for the mind-boggling reason that “they cannot show tax-evasion income” (the inference being, I suppose, that the so-called recovery has been fueled by illegal savings).

As you know, I am like Adam Smith in that I hold no brief for statistics. (One of the most successful books I ever edited was entitled How to Lie with Statistics.) It does, nevertheless, seem to me fitting that those who live by statistics should die by statistics. In the present instance, I think it as likely that the rate of saving has been overstated as the other way around; but whatever the precise figures may be, they certainly show that the tax cuts didn’t do what President Reagan promised they would do.

Nineteen months ago I told you why they wouldn’t. I wrote that unless the government is running a surplus, there is no way for tax cuts to be a direct stimulus to productive investment.“ To emphasize the point, I said it in italics, a typographical device I don’t resort to lightly.

My reasoning was as follows: “Try as he will, the supply-sider can’t get money into the hands of producers. This is not because of the conspicuous consumption of the rich or the notorious perversity of Wall Street. Even when everyone is doing his best to cooperate, the scheme can’t work. The supply-sider’s tax cuts go to the rich, all right; but the recipients have to lend the money right back to the government to cover the [increased] deficits. No more money becomes available for productive investment than there was before the game started.” I continued: “You will note that I say ‘available,’ because I don’t for a minute believe that much of that tax windfall would go into productive investment even if it could. Almost all of it is earmarked for speculation. No goods will be produced as a result of it, nor any services rendered. But the rich will be richer.”

Two months after my column appeared, the Times had a roundup of opinion on the economy, in which Professor Arthur Laffer was quoted. He was a big man in those days, with a curve named after him. The Laffer Curve, you will remember, was the principal intellectual underpinning of the Reaganomic tax cuts. Though it first appeared on a cocktail napkin and never was able to find empirical support, it was used to justify giving major tax cuts to the rich (whose incentive would otherwise be sapped). But on May 2, 1982, Laffer was quoted to the effect that the cuts would have “no economic effect” because the government would “give a dollar back and then borrow it right away from you.”

Yes, that is what I had said, and it amuses me to think Laffer might have gotten the idea from my column. That would have been sufficiently astounding. Sensationally astounding was the fact that here was one of the original supply-side gurus confessing that the scheme wouldn’t work. Laffer’s recantation was on a par with David Stockman’s confession that Reaganomics was a Trojan Horse for the rich.

Unfortunately, the Times business reporters are so used to stitching stories together out of mindless handouts, and Times readers are so used to skipping such stories that not even the Times editors noticed the recantation. In an editorial some weeks ago they still didn’t understand what had happened, attributing the fall in savings to the failure of the tax cuts to give individuals any “particular incentive” to save.

Now, in discussions like this, one can easily lose track of what the real issue is. The real issue here is not why savings have fallen but whether it makes any difference, and whether any “particular incentive” should be legislated to change the situation.

Classical economics noted that steam driven looms produced more cloth than hand looms, and were bought by men who had saved some money or could borrow the savings of others. Thus it seemed obvious that savings increased production (and so were virtuous and should be rewarded). That analysis, however, was inside out, as any moderately reflective businessman has known these past two centuries. For regardless of the savings one has accumulated, one is not well advised to buy a power loom if there is no effective demand for cloth or if the demand is already oversupplied. Of course, if there are no investment possibilities in textiles, there may be some elsewhere. But when you have 12 per cent of your labor force and 30 per cent of your industrial plant standing idle, the odds are against finding suitable places to put your savings, no matter how much you have laid by.

In this situation – which is the situation we have been in and are still in –  you can do two things with your savings: you can live it up, or you can speculate. Speculation, I’m ready to admit, is my King Charles’ head; I will therefore confine my remarks on the point to asking where you think all the billions came from that have gone into the stock market in the past 15 months.

Putting speculation aside, let’s look at living it up, otherwise known as consumption or demand. Here again, classical economics has something to say that seems plausible enough until you stop to think about it. The gimmick is Say’s Law. Jean Baptiste Say, a French contemporary of Adam Smith’s, had it figured out that production creates its own demand. He reasoned this way: If you set up a textile mill, you have to pay the people who build the factory and those who make the looms and those who raise and shear the sheep and those who run your looms. All these payments are used by these people to buy things they want or need, and the people who sell them these things use the money they are paid to buy what they want or need, and so on and on. Sooner or later, someone will buy your cloth. Or if no one does, it still happens that a lot of other goods are sold, so that, in the aggregate, production creates demand, and a universal glut is impossible.

MALTHUS, among a handful of others, saw that this is nonsense (because of the time lapses involved, if for no other reason), but he couldn’t convince his friend Ricardo or the followers of Ricardo. It took the Great Depression, when an unsalable glut existed for all to see, to exorcise the ghost of Say. And yet, only a half century later, the ghost of Say is again seen nightly on the battlements and occasionally stalking abroad in full daylight, driving Atari Democrats and self-advertised liberal businessmen mad with schemes to reduce consumption in the hope of increasing production.

A convenient example is at hand in an Op Ed page piece in the very issue of the Times that carried the story about the fall in savings. The author is one Fletcher Byrom, chairman of the Committee for Economic Development, described as “an organization of chief executive officers and university presidents.” Awesome. Byrom proclaims: “The United States needs to move away from a patchwork tax system that penalizes saving and investment toward one with more systematic emphasis on taxing consumption.” Someone should take Byrom aside and tell him about the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981.

He might also glance at another story in the same issue of the Times revealing that millionaires have multiplied like fruit flies even as savings have been languishing. There were about 180,000 millionaires in 1976 and 500,000 in 1981. It is not irrelevant that the great leap forward coincides with the introduction of the maxi tax on “earned” income. Goodness knows how many millionaires there are today, but I’ll bet the number has redoubled since the maxitax on unearned income went into effect two years ago. (I’ll bet the number of those below the poverty level has redoubled, too.)

If Byrom and his committee have their way, there will be still more people with millions to throw around. Their fortune-good for them but bad for the country – will be made possible by lowering the personal income tax and the corporation tax, while raising Social Security taxes and sales taxes, and maybe introducing a value-added tax, which is a semi-hidden kind of sales tax.

I am sorry, but I find it difficult to have proper respect for chief executive officers and college presidents who talk this way. The empirical evidence is plain that their policies have not done what they promised, yet they persist in them. The empirical evidence is plain as well that their policies have caused appalling suffering, not only in this country but throughout the world. Nonetheless, they persist. Although I find it hard to have proper respect for these people, I’m scared that they will continue to have their way.

The New Leader

Originally published February 7, 1983

A CURIOSITY of economic thought is its frequent dependence on what economists call psychology. My choice of words is deliberate, for what economists call psychology has only the most casual relation to what psychologists call psychology.

Examples appear on almost every page, certainly in every chapter, of all the great practitioners, from Adam Smith to the present. The latest economics fad (“Rational Expectations“) is based on concepts that pretend to be psychological. My favorite example – favorite because it comes from the work of the greatest economist of this century – will be found on page 96 of The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money by John Maynard Keynes.

“The fundamental psychological law,” Keynes writes, “upon which we are entitled to depend with great confidence both a priori from our knowledge of human nature and from the detailed facts of experience, is that men are disposed, as a rule and on the average, to increase their consumption as their income increases, but not by as much as the increase in their income.”

Of a lesser man than Keynes one might be tempted to say that he wrote so emphatically because he was aware his evidence was so slim. In any case, one may scour all the psychology textbooks in the land and read with close attention the 24 volumes of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, not to mention the writings of everyone from Erik Erikson to B.F. Skinner and even as far out as Noam Chomsky, and one will never find the faintest adumbration of this allegedly dependable psychological law.

The most familiar example of economists’ use of a purported psychological law is of course the profit motive. Psychologists talk of motives from time to time, but never of this one, while economists – especially conservative and radical economists – sometimes seem to talk of little else. One wonders, therefore, what it is that economists are trying to say, and why they should be trying to say it in this particular way.

The profit motive turns out, on examination, to be truly protean. I obviously am not interested in money this minute, so I must be scheming to get it eventually. Or I find prestige profitable. Or I get my kicks from being praised for doing good, or even from actually doing good. Or I yield a little to the proletariat today to forestall the revolution tomorrow. Or I mistakenly think I’m turning a profit when I’m barely keeping up with inflation. Or I believe I’ll be richly rewarded in heaven.

The only way the profit motive can be maintained at all is by pretending that everything is in some way profitable. What explains everything, however, explains nothing in particular. And if there is no way I can avoid being motivated by profit, then it follows that there is no way you can motivate me: I’m already motivated. You may try to disillusion me about my chances of heaven, but only by convincing me of the relevance of some other version of the motive. You can’t free me from, or stimulate me by, the profit motive itself.

Economists nevertheless stay the course, so to say, with motives because this procedure has a certain advantage. Writing nine years before The Wealth of Nations, Sir James Steuart observed that the “principle of self-interest” is the “only motive which a statesman should make use of, to engage a free people to concur in the plans which he lays down for their government.” Otherwise, he explained, “the statesman would be bewildered,” for “Everyone might consider the interest of his country in a different light.” Restricting one’s inquiries to matters that aren’t bewildering is a little like the vaudeville wheeze about the drunk looking for his lost wallet at the street corner because the light was better there. But it is more than that: It is an effort to establish an impersonal foundation for economics.

Establishment of this impersonality was the great achievement of Adam Smith, whose work swept Steuart’s into near-oblivion. Smith’s “invisible hand” was a truly world-historical idea: It changed the world. Its first appearance is worth quoting in extenso:”

“By preferring the support of domestic products to that of foreign industry, [every individual] intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants,” Smith adds drily, “and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.”

There are several aspects of this passage that may be astonishing. First, it comes not at the beginning of the book (where Smith put his famous analysis of the division of labor) but halfway through it, an incidental point in an argument against import restrictions. Second, it is not stated as an immutable rule (Nor is it always the worse …” frequently” “I have never  known much good … “). Third, it is based on merchants’ preferences (which no longer exist, if they ever did) for domestic over foreign products. Fourth, it is connected with the rest of economics only as an afterthought (“as in many other cases”). Yet the invisible hand shook the world.

Smith’s less metaphorical, and perhaps as often quoted, statement of the idea comes some 225 pages further on: “… the obvious and simple system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord. Every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest in his own way, and to bring both his industry and capital into competition with those of any other men or order of men.” That appears at the end of an attack on the physiocrats. But this time Smith goes on to state explicitly the factor of the idea that gave it its historical power: “The sovereign is completely discharged from a duty … for the proper performance of which no human wisdom or knowledge could ever be sufficient; the duty of superintending the industry of private people, and of directing it towards the employments most suitable to the interest of society.”

Thus the regularity of the profit motive became a lever to pry from the backs of mankind the age-old oppressions of sovereign lords. It was as liberating an idea as Copernican heliocentrism or the Newtonian laws of motion, which, by making the natural universe regular, freed mankind from intimidation by priestly revelations.

For two centuries economists have searched for and disputed over impersonal economic laws: from Say’s Law that “the creation of one product immediately opens a vent [demand] for other products” and Ricardo’s Law of Comparative Advantage (see “How Our Sun May Rise Again,” NL, July 12-26, 1982) to the Phillips and Laffer Curves (both now discredited) and other contemporary marriages of active imaginations with analytic geometry. Marx joined in the search: “It is not,” he writes in The Holy Family, “a matter of what this or that proletarian or even the proletariat as a whole pictures at present as its goal. It is a matter of what the proletariat is in actuality and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do.”

What was launched in search of freedom from arbitrary domination has paradoxically come aground on sociohistorical compulsion.

IN THE MEANTIME there are other consequences of the reliance on universal motivation, particularly profit motivation. Though this motive must become, as we have seen, protean in definition, it is construed narrowly in application. The argument goes that since men do things only for profit, the way to get them to do things is to make the doing profitable – to quickly and lavishly reward with money. This has always been the rationale of conservative economics and is by no means the invention of George Gilder or of Reagan, Regan or Kemp. What follows, of course, is that greed becomes a virtue.

That is a terrible notion. It is also a terrible choice as the ground of public policy; if you encourage greed, you will surely discover a great deal of it hitherto hiding under stones. Greed is, moreover, in the end an ineffectual basis for public policy. That is to say, it is ineffectual if your ultimate aim is something other than more greed. It is simply not true that most men and women are mostly motivated by greed. So when you try to run your economy on greed, you are running on a very few cylinders. We’re now experiencing how badly this works.

Similar inefficiency will plague you no matter what motive you select to base your economics on. A universal instinct of workmanship is as formless as universal greed. Motives are as individual as the individuals alleged to be motivated. A person’s motives are what he says they are. Gandhi was not out to make a buck; and if you charge him with hypocrisy because your theory says that everyone is out to make a buck, you lay yourself open to the same charge. And if disinterested discourse is thereby foreclosed, it becomes impossible to claim valid impartiality for any statement, including the original proposal of universal motivation. The rest is silence.

Motivation is the wrong idea, anyhow. It suggests what people do automatically, what they are programmed to do, what they “really” do. ‘Insofar as psychology inquires into such doings, it is no longer a suitable foundation for political economy. It played a necessary role in freeing us from the divine right of kings. The issue now, though, is not freedom from but freedom for. Our problem is not psychological but moral. It is not a question of determinism but of determination. As one of the prolegomena to any future economics, one can say that its task will be the discovery of conditions for free and responsible action[1].

The New Leader

[1] In this article, and especially the closing paragraphs, one can see the precursor to the arguments made in The End of Economic Man

Originally published September 6, 1982

THE NEW tax law[1] is, by and large, a wonder. Wall Street evidently was excited by the revenue-raising aspects of it, but that euphoria is not likely to last. We’ll still have the highest unemployment and bankruptcy rates since the Great Depression, and we’ll still have the largest deficits in history. The market will churn; some people will take a whirlpool bath, and more important, most of the new money that the Fed is expected to relax into the economy will go into that churning market rather than into production or consumption. It takes a lot of money to float a record 455.1-million-share week like the one we had August 16-20.

Nevertheless, the new tax law is a wonder, and Senator Robert Dole of Kansas is a wonder man. Among other things, as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee he demonstrated that lobbies can be licked. The double reverse he pulled on the restaurateurs was a beauty. They thought they had him stopped in his attempt to withhold taxes on waiters’ tips. But he had in his pocket the three-martini-lunch measure that got laughed to death when President Carter proposed it. In the nature of things, there are more people eating on expense accounts than there are waiters serving them. The waiters lost, and Bob Dole must have had a good chuckle.

Other and more significant loopholes were narrowed. I would not have given a wooden nickel for the chance to withhold taxes on interest and dividends, especially with Walter Wriston of Citibank bleeding over the astronomical sums he claims it will cost his little depositors. Nor could I have imagined the registration of Treasury and municipal bonds, impeding what is certainly a significant amount of hanky-panky. Nor would I have expected that high rollers would be required to call attention to their questionable tax shelters.

These are substantial reforms, and they’re expected to capture $21 billion of the $87 billion the IRS estimates the government was cheated out of in 1981 on legally acquired income. Joseph Pechman of the Brookings Institution and some others think the figure too high, but if you add in the cheating on state and local taxes, it will do well enough. Put it in perspective: Demagogues in high places love to make up anecdotes about welfare cheats, yet income tax cheating last year was more than 10 times [editor’s emphasis] the entire cost of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program-the entire cost, including all the alleged graft and bungling.

Even with the new law, there will remain $66 billion of cheating, and we’re going to hear a lot of talk about how much more effective it would be to simplify the tax law and just have a low, easy-to-understand, flat-rate tax. There are already several such schemes on the table.

Now, $66 billion is real money, and we should really try to collect it. But we don’t have a country just for the fun of collecting taxes; so we shouldn’t design our tax policy with only ease of collection in mind. I fear that is all some of the “reformers” do have in mind. They seem to argue that the way to reduce tax cheating is to reduce taxes. This is a realistic view-as realistic as the notion that the way to get rid of mob-controlled gambling is to legalize gambling. (You can tell that one to Atlantic City.)

I can, nevertheless, see much virtue in simplification. I don’t know of a’ single deduction or exemption I’d not be happy to see go, but I’m a reasonable fellow and ready to compromise. If you’re unwilling to give up the “charity” deduction altogether, I’ll settle for one based on cash only. If you want to hold on to interest expense, I’ll agree if it’s only for a mortgage on one owner-occupied dwelling. As long as your federalism (new or old) makes for wildly various state and local taxing, I’ll go along with deduction of taxes paid. If you push me very hard, I’ll grudgingly assent to some slightly special treatment of long-term capital gains-provided you agree to define “long term” as at least 10 years. Although I’m a little tender on the subject of interest on municipal bonds (I have some laid away for my old age), I can imagine satisfactory solutions here, too. In short, if there’s a tide in favor of simplifying the income tax, let’s take it at the flood.

It by no means follows that a flat rate is a desirable simplification. It’s all very well to dramatize the subject by saying that if there were no deductions or exemptions or tax shelters, the government’s needs would be covered by a flat rate of 16 per cent or whatever. Yet progressive tax rates are not hard to figure out, even without a pocket calculator. That’s not the kind of simplification we need. We can-and should-have progressive rates even after simplifying all the rest, and the progression should be steep, not at all like the 28 per cent maximum proposed by Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey.

There are two reasons for this, one broadly social, the other narrowly economic. The broad reason-which really should be conclusive-is among the many important issues examined in detail in a powerful new book by Wallace C. Peterson,  Our Overloaded Economy[2] (See Robert Lekachman’s review, “Challenging Corporate Efficiency,” NL, June 14 [pdf link below]). Peterson demonstrates the mischief caused in a democracy by such irrational spreads in income and wealth as we now tolerate.

The narrower reason turns on the indirect inflationary effect of high salaries. The direct effect is of course minimal. The economy is so large that it doesn’t matter much whether the president of Mobil gets $1.5 million a year or twice that or half that. The indirect effect is enormous and pervasive. The second level of Mobil executives cannot be expected to make do with salaries too far below their chief’s, and the third level has to be not too far below them, and so on down to the level of the working stiffs, whose union observes all those dollars up the line and quite reasonably demands a penny or two for its members. Thus to the extent that pay scales are a factor in productivity, and that productivity is a factor in inflation, the top pay scales are a factor – not the only one, but highly significant – in inflation.

If, as some say, take-home pay is what matters (this is what linguists might call the deep structure of the Laffer Curve), you would think that lower taxes would result in lower wage demands. The present law requires the president of Mobil to pay a tax of almost $750,000 on his $1.5 million salary. Under Dollar Bill Bradley’s scheme, the tax on $1.5 million would be something below $420,OOO-a windfall of $330,000. What would the president of Mobil then do? Would he work harder and make Montgomery Ward (conglomerated into Mobil at a loss) finally profitable and thus deserve even a higher salary? Since he probably works right now just as hard as he knows how, would he pocket the $330,000 with a grin on his face? Or would he insist on giving himself a pay cut to $1,041,658 (thus leaving his take-home pay at $750,000 and saving his stockholders and perhaps their customers-almost half a million?

Well, I don’t even know the man’s name so I can’t tell what he’d do, and it may not be fair to single him out for all this attention. His $1.5 million is by no means the highest salary in the country. Last year, according to Mark Green (Winning Back America), there were at least 35 executives who took down a million or more, and even a dozen who made off with $2 million. The CEO of Cabot Corporation (not a household name in most households) led all the rest in the book of gold with $3.3 million for one year’s work. How this happy few would react when brought face to face with a tax cut, I have no idea.

BUT I DO know what happened in the United States of America in a similar situation – when the maxitax of 50 per cent on earned income went into effect. Prior to that time, the tax went as high as 70 per cent, and I knew some people who paid it. The maxitax gave them a pretty plus. You might have expected – possibly some people really did expect – a nationwide reduction of executive salaries to hold their after-tax level more or less constant. What actually occurred was just the opposite – a great leap forward in executive salaries. When the tax was as high as 70 per cent, there possibly didn’t seem too much point to an extra hundred thousand; after the maxitax, a hundred got you fifty. That was more like it. In fact, it was better than the proportion of her earnings a working welfare mother was allowed to keep.

Before the maxitax, it was suspected that the higher a man got, the more time he spent wheeling and dealing, setting up capital gains situations through stock options and mergers, and devising new and more imaginative perks. With the “reform,” you might have expected a renewed and intense devotion to business, resulting in the kind of increases in industry and productivity that only good, old-fashioned American hard work and no-nonsense management can produce.

Again you would have been wrong. The sole industry stimulated by the maxitax was that of lawyers and accountants searching for tax shelters. After all, more executives had more to shelter. And perks expanded. Company limousines clogged the streets; company airplanes clogged the runways; and exhausted executives dried out (or not) in company suites at Sun Belt resorts. I myself have, over the years, had lunch four times at Lutece and twice at Four Seasons. It wouldn’t be hard to get used to.

On the basis of the record, it is easy to guess what would happen if Senator Bradley’s 28 per cent maxitax-or worse, Senator Jesse Helms flat 10 per cent tax were in effect. It is well to remember that the truly indecent American fortunes were gathered in when there was no income tax at all. A future danger in tax reform is that some men who think of themselves as liberals, and who are touted (or attacked) by the media as liberals are taken in by the supposed realism of a low flat tax. Liberals may need more realism; but whatever America needs, it is not more encouragement of the greed that no doubt lurks in all of us.

The New Leader

1982-6-14 Challenging Corporate Efficiency

[1] rescinded some of the effects of the Kemp-Roth Act passed the year before… as created in order to reduce the budget gap by generating revenue through closure of tax loopholes and introduction of tougher enforcement of tax rules, as opposed to changing marginal income tax rates

[2] The original text reads “OurOverburdenedEconomy” but Amazon says “Our Overloaded Economy”

Originally published March 8, 1982

MY HEAD is spinning-which is not surprising, for I have been reading a circular argument. If you read much economics, you encounter a good many circular arguments. This one is a dandy.

I refer you to the “Annual Report of the Council of Economic Advisers.” It is said to be a document of 357 pages, but all I know of it is what was printed in the New York Times, which is enough. In the section headlined “Why Deficits Matter” we find the following:

“Financing a budget deficit may draw on private saving and foreign capital inflows that otherwise would be available to the private sector …. Weak and marginal borrowers may be ‘rationed’ out of the market by higher interest rates unless saving flows are adequate…. During a recession-as now exists-the borrowing requirements of business and consumers tend to be relatively small. At such a time a given deficit can be financed with less pressure on interest rates than during a period of growth…. Much of the Administration’s tax program is designed to increase the private saving of the nation. As a consequence, both public and private borrowing will be accommodated more easily.”

What (if anything) is being said here? Restating the argument, it goes like this: First, the Administration’s tax cuts are a net addition to an already existing deficit. Second, government borrowing will have to go up to cover the raised deficit. Third, there will be no trouble with the increased borrowing, provided the recession continues (or deepens)-and the people who receive the tax cuts lend the money back to the government.

In short, at the end of the circular maneuver-assuming it works as it is intended to-the recession will be just what it was, and sizable transfer payments will have been made to people judged not to need them. In fact, they have been chosen to get the money precisely because they don’t need it. Also (incidentally) the deficit will be increased, and interest at 14 per cent or so will have to be paid on that. It adds up to real money, and it’s crazy, no matter how you look at it.

Let’s imagine (as I’ve remarked before, economists have to have good imaginations) that we had a Republican administration that knew something about finance. It would occur to such an imaginary administration that it would be simpler to keep the tax money it has, instead of returning part of it to rich people in the hope that they will lend it back to the government. Not only simpler but, of course, cheaper. Not only cheaper but, of course, less disruptive of the economy. Not only less disruptive of the economy but, of course, more equitable.

I don’t know what I’d do if I were a supply-side economist (my imagination isn’t lively enough for that). The supply-sider’s game plan is to put money into the hands of producers, who will invest it in new plant, which will eventually improve our productivity and make possible a higher standard of living for us all. He’d have to be blind not to see that, in general, producers are richer than other people. Thus to get money to them, he cuts taxes for the rich rather than for the poor or even for the middle class. He’s playing for the trickle down. Fair enough.

He recognizes that when taxes are cut faster than expenditures, the Federal deficit (not to mention the state and local deficits) rises. The Laffer Curve doesn’t say there won’t be an initial deficit rise; it merely promises, as President Hoover did, that prosperity is around the corner. So Jack Kemp isn’t worried about the deficit; he’s going for the long ball.

Nevertheless, the deficits have to be monetized or funded. Monetizing the debt means just printing money to pay the bills, and supply-siders are afraid to do that. The deficits therefore have to be funded. That is, bonds have to be issued to cover them. But one doesn’t simply issue bonds, one sells them. To.whom? Why, naturally, to the rich. No one else has the money to buy them. Unfortunately, the money the rich use to buy the bonds is the money they were supposed to invest on the supply side.

Try as he will, the supply-sider can’t get money into the hands of producers. This is not because of the conspicuous consumption of the rich or the notorious perversity of Wall Street. Even when everyone is doing his best to cooperate, the scheme can’t work. The supply-sider’s tax cuts go to the rich, all right; but the recipients have to lend the money right back to the government to cover the deficits. No more money becomes available for productive investment than there was before the game started.

Actually, even less is available, because the pressure of the deficits pushes up interest rates. This doesn’t have to happen, yet it will happen as long as the Federal Reserve Board clings to its monetarist doctrine of restricting the money supply (if it could only figure out what money is). You may be sure that the Fed will depress both the supply side and the demand side if it can. The resulting high interest rates will increase the cost of government borrowing and add to the deficits in what is now a pretty tight upward spiral. But that’s not the end.

High interest rates inhibit investment. Businesses that used to borrow money to expand in the good old-fashioned capitalist way can’t afford to pay 15-20 per cent for their money and have to cut back in order to survive.

Hence the supply-side tax cuts, with the best will in the world, will reduce the amount of money available for investment. You will note that I say” available,” because I don’t for a minute believe much of that tax windfall would go into productive investment even if it could. Almost all of it is earmarked for speculation. No goods will be produced as a result of it, nor any services rendered. But the rich will be richer.

TO SHOW what I mean about speculation, let me call your attention to some figures the Times printed a couple of weeks ago about Merrill Lynch, Treasury Secretary Regan‘s old firm and, breeding apart, the very model of a modern “investment” house. It turns out that by far the biggest part of Merrill Lynch’s income comes from interest its clients pay on margin accounts. Margin accounts are nothing if they are not speculations, and interest on them is 45.4 per cent of Merrill Lynch’s income. Next we have commissions, which amount to 22.8 per cent of their income, and the transactions the commissions were earned on were also speculations, buying and selling securities, without a penny of all those billions going into new productive enterprise.

Then comes “investment banking,” 8.6 per cent of income. That sounds more like it. Well, it sounds more like it until you hear what the small print says. Then you learn that “investment banking” includes “municipal and corporate underwriting and merger and acquisition advice.” Of this, the only part (and we don’t know how large it is) that might concern productive investment is the corporate underwriting, but even that is unlikely, coming in close conjunction, as it does, with “merger and acquisition advice.” Was Merrill Lynch involved in the $3 billion US Steel borrowed to buy Marathon Oil, or the $4 billion DuPont borrowed to buy Conoco? I don’t know, but I do know that transactions like that are speculations, not productive investments. No more oil is refined- no more anything is produced- as a result of them.

Yet this is the sort of thing-and the only sort of thing-that is encouraged by the supply-side tax breaks. Don’t get me wrong. I’m in favor of producers; after all, I’m sort of one myself. The late Professor John William Miller used to say that an entrepreneur is an economic surd: there’s no accounting for him, but you don’t have any economic activity at all unless some willful character says that, come hell or high water, there’s going to be this here-now business. Such types should be encouraged. I’m willing to believe that at least some supply-siders want to encourage them. But I’m here to declare that Reaganomics is going to encourage only those whose principal activity is clipping coupons.

Let me, as the fellow said, make myself perfectly clear. I’m not arguing against a deficit or against tax cuts, or for them. All I’m saying is that unless the government is running a surplus, there is no way for tax cuts to be a direct stimulus to productive investment [editor’s bolding]. Tax cuts can be an indirect stimulus: By giving some people more money to buy things, they can eventuate in producers producing more. But that is the demand side, not the supply side.

To be sure, Reaganomics has its demand side: the military buildup. Because of its specialized nature, this is not the most efficient stimulus the economy could have; it produces comparatively few jobs for a buck. Moreover, it cannot continue to stimulate the economy even as much as it does unless the arms race speeds up. (That may rate as a suitably dismal thought.)

If you really want to stimulate the demand side (which you really ought to want to do), you will give tax breaks to people who will spend their windfalls, not “save” them. In short, you will start cutting taxes at the bottom (Social Security taxes, for example) and work tentatively upward. This is the precise contrary of Reaganomics, but it makes precise sense.

The New Leader



THE OTHER DAY, as I was going down in an elevator with a black activist friend of mine, we were joined by a young black messenger who pulled out a paperback and started to read. My friend, having nothing more active to do at the moment, snatched the book away. “What’s that you’re reading?” he demanded. “The dictionary.” “The dictionary! Why the dictionary?” “Well,” the young man said, “it has the words.” My friend frowned, then thrust the book back. “All right,” he said sternly, “but challenge it.”

That is more or less how I feel about Lester C. Thurow’s The Zero-Sum Society, which I just got around to reading as a result of an Op-Ed piece he had in the Times a couple of weeks ago. If you haven’t read it, I think perhaps you ought to, all right-but challenge it, starting with the title. In the book trade, the rule is that a good title is the title on a bestseller. It doesn’t have to mean anything, and The Zero-Sum Society doesn’t mean anything, even to Professor Thurow. In his first chapter he announces that “All sporting events are zero-sum games.” But the precise contrary is the case. I can’t offhand think of any sporting event that is a zero-sum game. I grant that in every sport there are winners and losers, but the sum of their scores is not zero (as it is in gambling). As for political economy, it is not like any kind of game at all (the election of Richard Nixon was a situation where everyone in the nation lost).

Thurow actually understands this very well, for in the Times article I mentioned he points out the risk we all run in allowing our cities to deteriorate. He is absolutely right that the risk is great, and that we all-repeat, all-run it. If deterioration is a game, it’s one that has no winners, and whose score is a great deal less than zero. So I advise you to challenge the title and all those passages scattered through the book where Thurow remembers the title and works it into a paragraph or two. That’s mostly window dressing.

I also advise you to challenge what he has to say about environmental problems in Chapter 5, especially as compared with his Times article. He starts off with an unsupported ad hominem comment to the effect that “environmentalism is an interest of the upper middle class.” What’s that supposed to mean? Are all interests of the upper middle class (economics, for example) suspect? Has Harlem no interest in good garbage collection? (My activist friend thinks it has.)

Next he does a bit of shadow boxing with the GNP, because it doesn’t include a clean environment among the goods worth counting. This point is even more important than he allows: Not only does the GNP have no way of registering the value of clean air; it actually counts the unhappy results of pollution – higher doctor and hospital bills – as additions to the GNP. A miner who contracts black lung disease is thus improving our national productivity.

Thurow is aware of this, at least up to a point, yet he goes ahead and asks questions that presuppose a clean environment is not a real economic objective because it is not counted in the GNP. (But don’t get me started on the GNP.) Then, on the assumption (still unsupported) that different economic classes look on the environment differently, we are presented with an allegedly intractable problem of allocating benefits and costs. Zero-sum melodrama aside, it happens that our society has made a good bit of progress with these questions – just as it supports schools (even though many taxpayers have no children), builds highways (even though many taxpayers have no cars), “and maintains parks (even though many taxpayers have hay fever).

In the meat of the chapter, Thurow tells us how we “should think about the problem of how much ‘clean environment’ to buy. Imagine,” he says (economists are great imaginers), “that someone could sell you an invisible, completely comfortable face-mask that would guarantee you clean air. How much would you be willing to pay for such a device? Whatever you would be willing to pay,” he explains, “is what economists call the shadow price of clean air.” As Mark Twain would have said, ain’t that a daisy! I have a question or two for him: How much would you pay to avoid death in the next instant from asphyxiation? Or lingering death next Earth Day from lung cancer? My questions make just as much sense as his. In other words, no sense at all.

This absurd discussion leads into the most fantastic proposal in the book (not, I understand, original with Thurow): Rather than prevent pollution, we should charge for it by a system of “effluent charges.” The confusion here is between public and private good, and the unstated assumption is that since there is no absolute line between them, they are really the same. But what would you pay for a Superman suit so you could go jogging in Central Park at midnight? Your answer is the shadow price of police protection; and instead of trying to protect you, we’ll charge muggers for a license to beat you up (if they want to kill as well as maim you, the fee will be somewhat higher).

The point is that although all costs are stated in dollars, they cannot all be compared. Police protection has a cost, but it is a condition for society. Clean and decent public services are also a condition for society – for our society – as Thurow’s Times article shows. These services cost dollars. The dollars that this magazine or Thurow’s book cost are not comparable because these goods (though surely great) are incidental, not fundamental, to our society. That environmental concerns are relatively new fundaments for society is no argument against their necessity. London didn’t have a public police force until Sir Robert Peel invented the bobbies in 1829.

All public goods are, in principle, historical, and the environmentalists are making history today. If I find so much to challenge in only one chapter of The ZeroSum Society, why do I recommend that you read it? Aside from the stimulation the book provides (you can see that it has stimulated me), it has a few pages in another chapter that say some extraordinarily interesting things about taxation. I would never have believed it possible that anyone could convince me the corporation income tax should be abolished, yet Professor Thurow has done it. I fear his proposals on capital gains taxes are unworkable (he wants them withheld as the gains accrue; but fast growing companies – the ones with substantial gains – generally don’t have the cash to withhold), If I had my druthers, I’d trade off the abolition of the corporation income tax against the cancellation of special treatment of capital gains (which ought to be taxed as they are realized, as regular income, as they were before 1922) and the elimination or drastic modification of deductions for contributions and interest expenses. This is all moderately complicated, but I am told that Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation has an excellent staff, and I am sure they could work it out.

SPEAKING of capital gains reminds me of a circular letter just received from Senator Daniel P. Moynihan. It is always a pleasure to hear from the Senator, because, like Professor Thurow, he writes so well. This time, however, he’s congratulating himself on his role in lowering capital gains taxes, and he’s dead wrong. As proof that he was right in advancing the lowered rates, he cites increased total collections in spite of them. The Senator connects this result with the Laffer curve. It ain’t necessarily so (more likely a lot of long-term gains were cashed for a one-time killing), but it doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that the Senator seems to be saying that (1) taxation is for revenue only, and (2) the best tax is the one that’s easiest to collect. The first question was put on the road to settlement by Andrew Jackson’s” force bill” of 1833, and was definitively settled by the Civil War. About the second issue the Greeks and Romans (not to mention the Kwakiutl Indians) had much more efficient ideas than anything proposed today. When the ancient Greeks wanted to hold a festival or build a trireme, they simply told off a rich man for the honor of paying for it. The Romans used to do the same before they became an empire, and thereafter they developed the system of selling collection rights to a tax farmer. These were a sort of license to steal (like a license to pollute) and caused no immediate trouble at all to the government selling them. The Kwakiutl evened things up by holding a potlatch: very easy and lots of fun. So the Senator’s ideas on taxation are neither so new nor so pragmatic as he thinks. The thing about special treatment for capital gains is that it is a special break for the rich, which stimulates them to gamble (not to make productive investments), and which results in more inflation for the rest of us. See THE NEW LEADER for September 7, 1981.

GEORGE P. BROCKWAY, a past NL contributor,
is the chairman of the board of directors of W. W. Norton & Co.

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