Posts tagged with: finance

Blog author: jcarter
posted by on Tuesday, April 15, 2014

7figures[Note: '7 Figures' is a new, occasional series highlighting data and information from a variety of surveys and reports.]

1. The average federal tax rate for all households (tax liabilities divided by income, including government transfer payments) before taxes is 18.1 percent.

2. Households in the top quintile (including the top percentile) paid 68.8 percent of all federal taxes, households in the middle quintile paid 9.1 percent, and those in the bottom quintile paid 0.4 percent of federal taxes. (Quintiles — fifths — contain equal numbers of people.)

3. Social insurance taxes (e.g., Social Security, Medicare) account for the largest share of taxes paid by households in all but the top quintile.

4. The U.S. tax code is approximately 2,600 pages long (about 1.5 times longer than Tolstoy’s War and Peace and 2.5 times longer than Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged).

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, December 20, 2013

Newburgh, ME Piper Mountain Christmas tree farm1

A couple of further points in reply to Micah Mattix’s response on buying Christmas trees, based on his original post here.

1) I think Mattix’s characterization of the buyer as “selfish” goes a bit too far, and is not an accurate characterization of a good deal of market activity. “Self-interested” would be more accurate, and would allow for selfish actors, but would also allow more generally for benevolent actors. For instance, a nun who runs an orphanage has decided that her wards need spiritual as well as material sustenance, and has allotted a portion of the budget to purchase a live Christmas tree. But for every dollar she spends on the tree, one less bowl of gruel will be served. Is she acting selfishly if she gets the best deal on a tree that she can get? She may not be regarding the interests of the seller on the same level as her own (which include the interests of her wards), but it seems to bias the discussion too much to simply describe all the players involved as necessarily selfish. The same would apply mutatis mutandis to the father providing a tree for his family. In fact, buying a Christmas tree is usually a pretty unselfish activity.

2) Related to the above point, and developing it a bit further, certainly the buyer ought view the seller as someone to whom he or she has moral obligations. But to expect the seller to haggle up seems wrong. Perhaps the seller is perpetuating injustice by simply trying to sell trees even at a loss. Perhaps like the poet in Frost’s work they would be better off doing something else with them besides dumping. But they key here is that the buyer and the seller are in the best position to judge for themselves. It should also be noted that the tree seller isn’t just selling a single tree. Earlier sales of higher priced trees may subsidize and offset the costs of selling later trees at a discount. Mattix largely seems to want to argue for conscientious consumption, and I am all in favor of that. Let your conscience be your guide, and let your conscience be informed. But all too often things move beyond this to legislation of some kind of baseline. I realize that Mattix is not arguing for this, but the dangers of a mandated price floor for Christmas trees should be apparent.

3) We do agree “that a market economy is a good system that takes into consideration certain truths about human nature” and we also agree, as Mattix concludes, “that as a buyer price should always be the only determining factor.” I am certainly not defending an ideal of perfect prices. Prices are not perfect, and they are not sacrosanct. But they are often the best device we have for sorting out all of the complex realities that lie behind market transactions. The dynamic of this issue shares similarities with the disputes over fast food as well as, more broadly, the debates over fair trade. Here’s how Victor Claar sums things up, and I’ll close with this thought: “If you purchase ‘fair trade,’ buy it because you like the good or the service. Do not do it out of mere charity. Instead, give generously to charities that you know are effectively working for human rights, development of human and physical capital, and opportunities for the poor to discover increasingly valuable ways to serve others in the global marketplace.” Otherwise you might just be helping perpetuate the poverty-trap of Christmas tree sales.

noun_project_19538As the US federal government sidled up to the debt ceiling earlier this week without quite running into it, one of the key arguments in favor of raising the debt ceiling was that it is immoral to breach a contract. The federal government has creditors, both from whom it has borrowed money and to whom it has promised transfer payments, and it has an obligation to fulfill those promises.

As Joe Carter argued here, “Member of Congress who are refusing to raise the debt ceiling (or raise taxes) until their ancillary demands are met are acting immorally, since they are refusing to pay the debts they themselves authorized.”

But as Connie Cass writes, the idea that the United States has never defaulted isn’t quite true. As she writes,

America has briefly stiffed some of its creditors on at least two occasions.

Once, the young nation had a dramatic excuse: The Treasury was empty, the White House and Capitol were charred ruins, even the troops fighting the War of 1812 weren’t getting paid.

A second time, in 1979, was a back-office glitch that ended up costing taxpayers billions of dollars. The Treasury Department blamed the mishap on a crush of paperwork partly caused by lawmakers who — this will sound familiar — bickered too long before raising the nation’s debt limit.

So if it is immoral to default, then America has done so at least twice.

This week I wrote about the dignity of paying taxes (among other ways of contributing to social flourishing). But as we know, not all taxes are created equal. Indeed, as Antony Davies and James Harrigan write this week at US News, “Politicians are in the business of buying votes with tax breaks and sweetheart deals for their preferred constituencies, and they have to offset these deals by taxing disfavored constituencies at increased rates. The longer this game is played, the more convoluted the tax code becomes.”

As I argued previously at Capital Commentary, this amounts to a kind of back door social engineering (as well as playing favorites, picking winners, and so on). The fundamental purpose of taxation is not to buy votes and give preference to lobbies and special constituencies. Instead, as I write, “The point of taxation is to raise funds to enable the government to fulfill its moral, political, and social responsibilities.” Such a view is ultimately at odds with a Utilitarian theory, which considers taxation to be a tool rather used “to maximize overall well-being in society.” Matthew Weinzierl argues for greater attention to a theory of Equal Sacrifice, which on Weinzierl’s account “assumes individuals have the first claim to their output, and that they voluntarily agree to form societies that collect taxes in order to purchase public goods.”

Pieter de Hooch - A Woman with a Baby in her Lap, and a Small ChildOne of the justifications for the HHS mandates (amended now to require insurance companies to provide contraceptives free of charge) has been purely economic. The idea is that the use of contraceptives saves insurance companies (and by extension the rest of us) money, as it is less expensive to pay for condoms or birth control pills than to pay for a pregnancy and birth.

Of course the calculus to come up with such a conclusion is flawed in myriad ways. But even if we were to assume the veracity of the contention, many questions immediately arise. For instance, why wouldn’t insurance companies voluntarily offer birth control coverage gratis if it would lower their costs? Aren’t these the same profit-maximizing institutions that politicians have been demonizing for years? Aren’t the insurers the professionals, whose business it is to know what ways are available for minimizing exposure? The very fact that up to this point insurance companies have not added free birth control as a preventive care measure is powerful evidence against the economic argument in favor of contraception.

Much has been made already about President Obama’s comments yesterday at the National Prayer Breakfast concerning the Christian faith’s teachings about social responsibility. During his time at the breakfast, the president opined that getting rid of tax breaks for wealthy Americans amounted to a Christian obligation:

In a time when many folks are struggling and at a time when we have enormous deficits, it’s hard for me to ask seniors on a fixed income or young people with student loans or middle-class families who can barely pay the bills to shoulder the burden alone. And I think to myself, if I’m willing to give something up as somebody who’s been extraordinarily blessed and give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy, I actually thinks that’s going to make economic sense. But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’ teaching that, from to whom much is given, much shall be required.

The president is referring to the passage that concludes Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the watchful servants in Luke 12. It’s a good thing that the president isn’t the theologian-in-chief!

As Breanne Howe has pointed out (HT: The Transom), the text itself has to do with the basic idea of stewardship (the best resource for exploring the truly biblical conception of stewardship in its fullness is the NIV Stewardship Study Bible). I do think Howe draws a bit too sharply the lines between obligations and giving, as she writes, “Giving out of obligation is not truly giving, it’s merely following the rules.” There’s a complex relationship between legal requirements, moral obligations, and Christian gratitude that can’t be summed up by simply juxtaposing Christian charitable giving and government taxation.

But at the same time, paying your taxes can’t be simply conflated with meeting Christian social obligations, either. Christians are to pay taxes, certainly, but that doesn’t mean that Christian social responsibility is reducible to paying taxes.

More problematic, perhaps, is this latter identification, with our responsibilities before God being transferred to our responsibilities to government. If the president can use a text like Luke 12:48 to argue for progressive taxation, then what kind of tax policy should we implement on the basis of Luke 19:24-26?

Then he said to those standing by, ‘Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.’

“‘Sir,’ they said, ‘he already has ten!’

“He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

It’s too easy and sometimes irresistibly tempting to move directly from the text of Scripture to the text of legislation.

Prooftexting for the purpose of political posturing does violence to the Scriptures and damages our public discourse. That might be the most important political lesson arising from yesterday’s breakfast.

In a recent article in the Washington Post, Juan Forero and Michael Birnbaum recommend that in the face of the looming specter of Greek debt default, Europe may learn a few lessons from South America. In particular, they point to the good example of Uruguay and the bad example of Argentina.

According to the authors,

In a story that may provide a lesson for Europe, one country, Uruguay, that was on the edge of financial oblivion organized a fast, orderly and negotiated response that revived the economy and ended a run on banks. Another, Argentina, spiraled into a chaotic default and remains a pariah in world financial markets.

The article lists a variety of reasons, such as tax evasion, political stagnation, and civil unrest, with regards to why Greece is in danger of becoming the next Argentina. There is one aspect, in particular, though, that sheds some interesting light on current monetary practice. According to the article,

Greece is hamstrung by its ties to the euro, which it cannot devalue to make its exports cheaper, and leaving the currency zone might prove even more painful.

Though currency debasement has been possible since time immemorial, it has become easier ever since the “Nixon Shock” of 1971, when the United States ended its tie to the gold standard, affecting every other nation which had tied its own currency to the U.S. dollar for the sake of stability. However, from that point on, most countries have been operating with purely fiat-based currency; a government’s central bank can print as much or as little money as they desire, since its value has no stable grounding. (Grounding the dollar’s value to a specific amount of gold prevented the U.S. from printing more money than gold that it could be exchanged for.)

In a recent article in the Journal of Markets & Morality, James Alvey highlights the analysis of James Buchanan on the ethics of public debt and default. With regards to default, Buchanan identified two common means: open default or concealed default through inflation. By inflating its currency, a country can, in effect, cheat its bondholders out of the amount promised to them by repaying its debts with debased money. To do so is effectively concealed default. Notably, Alvey writes, “Buchanan says that the U.S. government did ‘default on a large scale through inflation’ during the 1970s,” the very decade in which we left the gold standard.

What is fascinating about the current crisis with Greece is that its central bank does not have sole control of the euro. Despite being a fiat currency, its decentralized nature gives it a certain stability.  Concealed default is not an option for Greece, forcing it to make the hard decisions necessary to avert defaulting on its debt or to do so openly.

For more on the history and moral implications of currency debasement, see Juan de Mariana, Treatise on the Alteration of Money, recently translated and published by Christian’s Library Press.

Last summer, Acton’s PovertyCure team traveled to Ghana to meet with its economists and entrepreneurs — the men and women who are helping the country develop. It just so happens that they also met briefly with Peter Cardinal Turkson, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice and co-author of the note released yesterday that has stirred up a global controversy.

Cardinal Turkson, a native of Ghana, calls for the establishment of a central world bank in his note to the G-20, published in anticipation of next month’s summit in Cannes. Drawing from the first world’s obligation in solidarity to the developing world, he says:

Specific attention should be paid to the reform of the international monetary system and, in particular, the commitment to create some form of global monetary management, something that is already implicit in the Statues of the International Monetary Fund. It is obvious that to some extent this is equivalent to putting the existing exchange systems up for discussion in order to find effective means of coordination and supervision. This process must also involve the emerging and developing countries in defining the stages of a gradual adaptation of the existing instruments.

On that trip to Ghana, PovertyCure sat down for an interview with entrepreneur Herman Chinery-Hesse, a Ghanaian software developer who writes programs that can handle frequent power outages and primitive technology. (“Everybody builds Rolls Royces, but we’re in Africa; we build Land Rovers,” he explains.) His experience with a heavily nationalized economy that is dependent on foreign aid has taught him much:

I have never heard of a country that developed on aid. If you have heard of one, let me know! I know about countries that developed on trade, and innovation, and business. I don’t know of any country that got so much aid that it suddenly became a first world country. I have never heard of such a country.

Chinery-Hesse has plenty of experience with engines of economic progress created by well-meaning Western nations:

You cannot imagine how petty the political parties could get [in Ghana]… and they can do this because they are not depending on tax revenue. They are more interested in a smile on the World Bank country director’s face than the success of my business.

A truly human program of development must take into account the fallen nature of developing countries’ rulers — they’re human too, after all. The World Bank is disruptive enough as it is: ask Herman Chinery-Hesse whether Ghana would improve if we merged it into a behemoth financial overlord.

Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg has provided his reasoned take on the new document from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace — it’s up at The Corner. While its diagnosis of the world economy is fairly accurate, the council’s treatment plan is lacking in prudential analysis. Gregg’s disappointment is expressed at the end: “For a church with a long tradition of thinking seriously about finance centuries before anyone had ever heard of John Maynard Keynes or Friedrich Hayek, we can surely do better.”

He’s got four main points (full text below): (1) the fiat money system that accelerated financial decline wouldn’t be reformed by a world bank; (2) neither would the proliferation of moral hazards, which might in fact be increased; (3) there is no mention in the document of public debt and deficits, which problems face most developed countries and can’t be ignored; (4) there is little reason to believe that a newly created world bank could avoid the mistakes made by the Federal Reserve and other sovereign banks in the lead-up to the 2008 crash.

Despite the Catholic Left’s excited hyperventilating that the document released today by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (PCJP) would put the Church “to the left of Nancy Pelosi” on economic issues, more careful reading of “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority” soon indicates that it reflects rather conventional contemporary economic thinking. Unfortunately, given the uselessness of much present-day economics, that’s not likely to make it especially helpful in thinking through some of our present financial challenges.

Doctrinally speaking, there’s nothing new to be found in this text. As PCJP officials will themselves tell you, it’s not within this curial body’s competence to make doctrinal statements that bind Catholic consciences. Moreover, the notion that an increasingly integrated world economy requires some type of authority able to make decisions about what the Church calls “the universal common good” has long been a staple of Catholic social teaching. Such references to a global world authority have always been accompanied by an emphasis on the idea of subsidiarity, and the present document is no exception to that rule. This principle maintains that any higher level of government should assist lower forms of political authority and civil-society associations “only when” (as this PCJP text states) “individual, social or financial actors are intrinsically deficient in capacity, or cannot manage by themselves to do what is required of them.”

But putting aside doctrinal questions, this text also makes claims of a more strictly economic nature. Given that these generally fall squarely into the area of prudential judgment for Catholics, it’s quite legitimate for Catholics to discuss and debate some of this document’s claims. So here are just a few questions worth asking.

First, the text makes a legitimate point about the effects of a disjunction between the financial sector and the rest of the economy. It fails, however, to note that one major reason for this disjunction has been the dissolution of any tie between money and an external object of value that regulates the quantity of money and credit in circulation in the “real” economy.

Between the late 1870s and 1914, such a linkage existed in the form of the classic gold standard. This gave the world remarkable monetary stability and low inflation without any centralized authority. You needn’t be a Ron Paul disciple to recognize that fiat money’s rise is at least partly responsible for the monetary crises this document correctly laments.

Second, this document displays no recognition of the role played by moral hazard in generating the 2008 crisis or the need to prevent similar situations from arising in the future. Moral hazard describes those situations when people are effectively insulated from the possible negative consequences of their choices. This makes them more likely to take risks they wouldn’t otherwise take — especially with other people’s money. The higher the extent of the guarantee, the greater is the risk of moral hazard. It creates, as the financial journalist Martin Wolf writes, “an overwhelming incentive to privatize gains and socialize losses.”

If PCJP were cognizant of this fact, it might have hesitated before recommending we consider “forms of recapitalization of banks with public funds, making the support conditional on ‘virtuous’ behaviours aimed at developing the ‘real economy.’” Such a recapitalization would simply reinforce the message that Wall Street can always turn to taxpayers to bail them out when their latest impossible-to-understand financial scheme goes south. In terms of orthodox Catholic theology, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the one who creates an occasion of sin bears some indirect responsibility for the choices of the person tempted by this situation to do something very imprudent or simply wrong.

Third, given this text’s subject matter, it reflects one very strange omission. Nowhere does it contain a detailed discussion of the high levels of public debt and deficits in many developed economies, the clear-and-present danger they represent to the global financial system, and their negative impact upon the prospects for economic growth (i.e., what gets people out of poverty).

Given these facts, how could governments provide the aforementioned public funds when they are already so heavily in debt and already tottering under the weight of existing fiscal obligations? By raising taxes? Even Bill Clinton thinks that’s not a great idea in an economic slowdown. Indeed, the basic demands of commutative justice indicate that governments need to meet their current obligations to existing creditors before they can even consider contributing to further bailouts.

Fourth, the document calls for the creation of some type of world central bank. Yet its authors seem unaware that much of the blame for our present economic mess is squarely attributable to central banks. Here one need only note that the Federal Reserve’s easy-money policies from 2000 onwards played an indispensible role in creating America’s housing-market bubble, the development of questionable securities products, and the subsequent 2008 meltdown.

Calls for a global central bank aren’t new. Keynes argued for such an organization 75 years ago. But why, given national central banks’ evident failures, should anyone suppose that a global central bank wouldn’t fall prey to the same errors? The folly of a centralized supranational body like the European Central Bank setting a one-size-fits-all interest-rate for economies as different as Greece and Germany should now be evident to everyone who doesn’t live in the fantasy world inhabited by EU bureaucrats. Indeed, it is simply impossible for any one individual or organization to know what is the optimal interest-rate for every country in the EU, let alone the world.

Plenty of other critiques could — and no doubt will — be made of some of the economic claims advanced in this PCJP document. As if in anticipation of this criticism, the document states, “We should not be afraid to propose new ideas.” That is most certainly true. Unfortunately, many of its authors’ ideas reflect an uncritical assimilation of the views of many of the very same individuals and institutions that helped generate the world’s most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression. For a church with a long tradition of thinking seriously about finance centuries before anyone had ever heard of John Maynard Keynes or Friedrich Hayek, we can surely do better.

Amid the hustle and bustle of preparing for tonight’s Acton Institute annual dinner, I’m trying to carve out some time to make final preparations for my participation in the 9th Annual Christian Scholars’ Symposium hosted by the Christian Legal Society. Tomorrow afternoon I’ll be debating with Gideon Strauss of the Center for Public Justice on the question, “Justice, Poverty, Politics & the State: Is There a Christian Perspective?”

One of the pressing issues related to the size and scope of government is the complex nature of today’s tax system, particularly at the federal level. Regardless of what you think of Herman Cain’s “9-9-9″ tax plan, Arthur Laffer’s opening observations in a WSJ op-ed yesterday summarize well where we find ourselves:

It used to be that the sole purpose of the tax code was to raise the necessary funds to run government. But in today’s world the tax mandate has many more facets. These include income redistribution, encouraging favored industries, and discouraging unfavorable behavior.

To make matters worse there are millions and millions of taxpayers who are highly motivated to reduce their tax liabilities. And, as those taxpayers finagle and connive to find ways around the tax code, government responds by propagating new rules, new interpretations of the code, and new taxes in a never-ending chase. In the process, we create ever-more arcane tax codes that do a poor job of achieving any of their mandates.

Gideon was kind enough to ask me to contribute to CPJ’s Capital Commentary a few months back on the question of getting back to first principles with respect to the tax code. And in that piece, “Back Door Social Engineering,” I made the following case, taking my own point of departure with another quote from Laffer:

A return to a first-principles discussion of taxation in America requires a return to the fundamental purposes of taxation. Notwithstanding the current size of the federal tax code, the fundamental purpose of government taxation is not to encourage or discourage particular behaviors. The point of taxation is to raise funds to enable the government to fulfill its moral, political, and social responsibilities. It is true, as economist Arthur Laffer has made famous, that “when you tax something you get less of it, and when you reward something you get more of it.” But this reality, which takes into account how people respond to incentives, is secondary to the basic function of taxation.

It is immoral for a government to chronically run up deficits and lack the willpower to actually raise the funds it needs to do what it sets before itself. Michael Munger put it well: “Deficits are future taxes.” Quite apart from the question of what the government ought to be doing is the issue of paying for what it actually does, and our government has failed miserably on that latter point.