A couple of interviews to bring you up to speed on from that last couple of days:
First of all, here’s Acton Director of Research Samuel Gregg on the GRN Alive morning show on the Guadalupe Radio Network this morning to discuss current efforts to raise the federal minimum wage, giving his analysis on the likely impact of such a move on the economy and the job market.
And from yesterday, here’s Acton co-founder and President Rev. Robert A. Sirico with host Mike Rosen on The Mike Rosen Show on 850 KOA in Denver, Colorado, to discuss Pope Francis’ recent comments to United Nations officials, which included remarks on “legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the State.” Rosen and Sirico speak extensively about Catholic teaching on economics, and about the misleading nature of the term “trickle-down economics.”
Are you a fan of redistribution? Do you think those with more money should willingly or unwillingly spread the wealth? Do you believe the government should step in and help with the redistribution process? Well, economist Donald Boudreaux has a few questions for you.
Do you teach your children to envy what other children have? Do you encourage your children to form gangs with their playmates to “redistribute” toys away from richer kids on the schoolyard toward kids not so rich? If not, what reason have you to suppose that envy and “redistribution” become acceptable when carried out on a large scale by government?
In a new book, The Good Rich and What They Cost Us, Robert Dalzell Jr. aims to address “a great paradox at the core of the American Dream: a passionate belief in the principles of democracy combined with an equally passionate celebration of wealth.”
In a review for the Wall Street Journal, Amity Shlaes notes that although the book provides an in-depth look at the history of American philanthropy, the author’s own personal prescriptions lend too high a trust to government redistribution:
“The Good Rich” starts out like a tour through a portrait gallery, describing rather than judging. For much of his narrative, Mr. Dalzell refrains from giving his own opinion explicitly and reports merely that the rich have often blamed themselves for their lapses or oversize good fortune, or that their peers did.
Toward the book’s end, though, Mr. Dalzell drops his own screen, putting forward a familiar argument: that democracy suffers unless wealth and philanthropy are redistributed to reduce economic inequality. Even the “good rich” cost us: They don’t give wisely, Mr. Dalzell contends, spending too much on “elite institutions like Harvard, Yale, MIT and Princeton, which seems unlikely to reduce the income gap by much.” …For the sake of the public good, then, the rich must fashion better charity projects while handing over more of their money to the government.
Such philanthropic efforts deserve to be thoroughly examined. Likewise, from the poorest of us to the wealthiest, we should be energetic in examining our own activities, using discernment and wisdom in how we use our resources. But as Shlaes indicates, if it’s difficult for we individuals to wrestle with these deep questions about stewardship — particularly when we’re calling on the Divine for wisdom, as many philanthropists under Dalzell’s microscope claim to have done — how much more difficult will it be for a bloated government machine to utilize proper discernment? (more…)
French President François Hollande has promised a 75% tax rate on those in his country who earn an annual salary above one million euros ($1.24 million). Not surprisingly, this number has struck fear into the hearts and wallets of quite a few of France’s top earners, including some who are contemplating leaving and taking their jobs with them. The New York Times has the story:
Many companies are studying contingency plans to move high-paid executives outside of France, according to consultants, lawyers, accountants and real estate agents — who are highly protective of their clients and decline to identify them by name. They say some executives and wealthy people have already packed up for destinations like Britain, Belgium, Switzerland and the United States, taking their taxable income with them.
They also know of companies — start-ups and multinationals alike — that are delaying plans to invest in France or to move employees or new hires here.
The potential tax increase threatens to handcuff “les Riches” and, ironically enough, undercut France’s prized notion of egalité, taking with it liberté and fraternité, the remainder of the country’s tripartite maxim. In Hollande’s France, these principles may not apply to the wealthy.
Of course, Hollande’s tax initiative is sure to have some beneficiaries. No, not the poor or the middle class. The real winners? Well, they live on the other side of the border. Also from the Times:
“It is a ridiculous proposal, but it’s great for us,” said Jean Dekerchove, the manager of Immobilièr Le Lion, a high-end real estate agency based in Brussels. Calls to his office have picked up in recent months, he said, as wealthy French citizens look to invest or simply move across the border amid worries about the latest tax.
“It’s a huge loss for France because people and businesses come to Belgium and bring their wealth with them,” Mr. Dekerchove said. “But we’re thrilled because they create jobs, they buy houses and spend money — and it’s our economy that profits.”
The entire story reminds me of a passage from Rev. Robert Sirico’s latest book, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy. In a chapter titled “The Idol of Equality,” Sirico addresses the unsustainable nature of simple redistribution. Instead, business development and job creation are essential–and lasting–tenets of economic growth. From the book:
When most people picture the 1 percent and their wealth, what comes to mind is designer clothing and jewelry, yachts and limousines, mansions and penthouses—all sorts of alluring and attention-grabbing luxuries. Luxuries so distracting, in fact, that we tend to lose sight of the fact that most of the wealth of the wealthiest is invested. It is put to work in the businesses they own and manage, and in stocks and other financial vehicles that provide the capital for countless other businesses. These are the businesses that provide the 99 percent with the goods, services, and employment that they regularly enjoy and often take for granted.
Whether it’s a big automotive plant or a small bakery on the corner, a microchip manufacturer or a family farm, all businesses that produce goods and employ people are owned by someone. It’s businesses that make up most of the wealth of the 1 percent. Confiscating that wealth and giving it to the other 99 percent would mean shifting much of that wealth from investment and production to consumption, since the poor and middle class consume a far higher percentage of their income than the wealthy do. This sudden shift from investment and production to consumption would demolish the infrastructure that makes jobs, goods, and services possible.
Hollande would be wise to read Defending the Free Market. Doing so might save his nation and preserve liberty, equality and brotherhood in the process.
Glenn Barkan, retired dean of Aquinas College’s School of Arts and Sciences here in Grand Rapids, had a piece worth reading in the local paper over the weekend related the current trend (fad?) toward buying local. In “What’s the point of buying local?” Barkan cogently addresses three levels of the case for localism in a way that shows that the movement need not have the economic, environmental, or ethical high ground.
At the economic level, Barkan asks, “Does the local stuff taste better than the imported stuff?” This is essentially a question about competitive advantage. This is the economic idea that some locations, given geographic, cultural, or other features, are better places to produce certain things than other places. Try as one might, it is difficult to grow mangoes in Michigan.
But one of the arguments against large-scale (statewide, national, or global) trade is that there are large environmental consequences. To this point, Barkan writes, “Following this thread means that most decisions which in the past were made on a variety of criteria will now be made only upon the criteria of consuming resources in transportation. How can I keep my carbon footprint small? No more Swiss chocolate, Italian cheese or French wine. Is this what we want?” I think that is what many of the localists in fact do want. It is somehow immoral for me, living in Michigan, to consume mangoes grown in Mexico.
What these kinds of considerations lead to is the moral claim that, in Barkan’s case, for instance, “I have some sort of moral obligation to buy Granny Smith apples from Michigan, and not from Washington.” To this Barkan responds that one mark of moral calculation is discerning where needs really lie: “If I had to choose between making a purchase which provided an income for a very needy family in Alabama, or a less needy family in Kent County, I think I would choose the former.” And better yet, given the relative wealth of even the poor in America on a global scale, we might say that poor workers in the developing world need trade more than the relatively poor in America.
An article in the Spring issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality makes the implications of these kinds of considerations quite well. In “Social Choice: The Neighborhood Effect,” Brian K. Strow and Claudia W. Strow write in the context of wealth redistribution, “a lower-middle-class worker by Massachusetts standards may be a net beneficiary of income redistribution at the Commonwealth definition of society but is likely to be a net contributor at the national definition. They most certainly would lose the vast majority of their income if the world were used as the definition of society.”
The payoff for Barkan is that “a soul is a soul. Whether it is a Kent county soul, or one from California, or Ghana. I choose to have my purchasing decision do the most good for the most needy. Regardless of localism.”
Or as economist Victor Claar put it, “we should treat people as people, no matter where they happen to live. We are all created in the image of God. I find it distressing that we protect relatively affluent Americans when we should give everybody an opportunity to do something they can do well, at a low cost, in a high quality way.”
In the “Wealth Inequality Mirage” on RealClearMarkets, Diana Furchtgott-Roth looks at the campaign waged by “levelers” who exaggerate and distort statistics about income inequality to advance their political ends. The gap, she says, is the “main battle” in the Nov. 2 election. “Republicans want to keep current tax rates to encourage businesses to expand and hire workers,” she writes. “Democrats want to raise taxes for the top two brackets, and point to rising income inequality as justification.”
This is a constant refrain from the religious left, which views the income or wealth gap as evidence of injustice and grounds for reforming political and economic structures. In the video posted here, you’ll see Margaret Thatcher, in her last speech in the House of Commons on November 22, 1990, brilliantly defending her policies against the same charge.
Furchtgott-Roth zeroes in on a recent interview with Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor for President Bill Clinton and now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
[Reich said:] “Unless we understand the relationship between the extraordinary concentration of income and wealth we have in this country and the failure of the economy to rebound, we are going to be destined for many, many years of high unemployment, anemic job recoveries and then periods of booms and busts that may even dwarf what we just had.”
Mr. Reich is wrong. He and other levelers exaggerate economic inequality, eagerly, because they rely on pretax income, which omits the 97% of federal income taxes paid by the top half of income earners and the many “transfer payments,” such as food stamps, housing assistance, Medicaid and Medicare. This exaggerated portrait of inequality undergirds the present effort by the Democrats to raise income tax rates for people with taxable incomes of $209,000 a year on joint returns and $171,000 a year on single returns.
A more meaningful measure of inequality comes from an examination of spending. On Wednesday the Labor Department presented 2009 data on consumer spending, based on income quintiles, or fifths. This analysis shows that economic inequality has not increased, contrary to what the levelers contend.
Much of the discussion around this issue from the left uses the data to portray America as a heartless land of haves and have-nots. Here’s a quote from a Sept. 28 AP story on new census data, including income figures:
“Income inequality is rising, and if we took into account tax data, it would be even more,” said Timothy Smeeding, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who specializes in poverty. “More than other countries, we have a very unequal income distribution where compensation goes to the top in a winner-takes-all economy.”
Here’s an amazing statistic: The average 2009-10 faculty salary at Wisconsin Madison was $111,100. But the median household income for all Americans in 2007 (a roughly parallel comparison) was just over $50,000. Isn’t something out of whack here? Isn’t this evidence of severe economic injustice demanding structural reform? Sounds to me like the Bucky Badger faculty has been helping itself to second and third helpings at the “winner-take-all” buffet.
The faculty at Prof. Reich’s school do even better on average income: $145,800. I suspect some celebrity professors might even be … above average.
… recent events have added nothing that we did not know before or, more accurately, should have known as social scientists or otherwise as people attentive to empirical evidence. The crucial fact here, of course, is the vast superiority of capitalism in improving the material standards of living of large numbers of people, and ipso facto the capacity of a society to deal with those human problems amenable to public policy, notably those of poverty. But, if this fact had been clear for a long time, recent events have brought it quite dramatically to the forefront of public attention in much of the world, and by no means only in Europe. It is now more clear than ever that the inclusion of a national economy in the international capitalist system (pace all varieties of “dependency theory”) favors rather than hinders development, that capitalism remains the best bet if one wishes to improve the lot of the poor, and that policies fostering economic growth are more likely to equalize income differentials than are policies that deliberately foster redistribution.
[ … ]
… to opt for capitalism is not to opt for inequality at the price of growth; rather, it is to opt for an accelerating transformation of society. This undoubtedly produces tensions and exacts costs, but one must ask whether these are likely to be greater than the tensions and costs engendered by socialist stagnation. Moreover, the clearer view of the European socialist societies that has now become public radically debunks the notion that, whatever else may have ailed these societies, they were more egalitarian than those in the West: they were nothing of the sort. One must also remember that, comparatively speaking, these European societies were the most advanced in the socialist camp. The claims to greater equality are even hollower in the much poorer socialist societies in the Third World (China emphatically included).
What is the root cause of the sub-prime crisis shaking the global economy? We need to know so we don’t allow it to screw up our economy even worse.
Many point to dishonesty and poor judgment on Wall Street. There was plenty of that leading up to the near-trillion dollar bailout, and even now the stock market is busily disciplining stupid, dishonest companies.
Others point to the many people who falsified loan applications to get mortgages beyond their means. That too played a role.
But dishonesty and poor judgment are as old as Adam and Eve. Something more was at work in the present crisis, a crisis of unprecedented scope. Why didn’t profit-minded loan companies run thorough credit checks? Why did they keep pumping out low interest loans to high risk borrowers, ignoring the risks?
It’s as if somebody spiked the financial system’s punch bowl with stupid juice, driving normally prudent financiers to dash, en masse, over the cliff.
It seems that way because it is that way. The brewers of the stupid juice were largely (if not exclusively) politicians in Washington who sought to redistribute wealth from the rich and middle class to poor people with bad credit. These politicians fostered various laws and institutions that directed, cajoled and legally bullied mortgage companies to extend big loans to people with little credit.
A case in point is a group called ACORN—Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. Stanley Kurtz explains in an Oct. 7 essay at National Review Online:
“You’ve got only a couple thousand bucks in the bank. Your job pays you dog-food wages. Your credit history has been bent, stapled, and mutilated. You declared bankruptcy in 1989. Don’t despair: You can still buy a house.” So began an April 1995 article in the Chicago Sun-Times that went on to direct prospective home-buyers fitting this profile to a group of far-left “community organizers” called ACORN, for assistance. In retrospect, of course, encouraging customers like this to buy homes seems little short of madness.
… At the time, however, that 1995 Chicago newspaper article represented something of a triumph for Barack Obama. That same year, as a director at Chicago’s Woods Fund, Obama was successfully pushing for a major expansion of assistance to ACORN, and sending still more money ACORN’s way from his post as board chair of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. Through both funding and personal-leadership training, Obama supported ACORN. And ACORN, far more than we’ve recognized up to now, had a major role in precipitating the subprime crisis.
Where in the world would you pay $145,750 for a roll of toilet paper? According to an article in the New York Times, inflation in Zimbabwe is soaring higher than ever — about 900 percent since President Mugabe began seizing land from wealthy landowners in 2000. And inflation is climbing at unparalleled rates.
What problems result from such rampant inflation? If inflation is climbing daily and you have $100 one day, it might be worth only $90 the next. People are spending any money that they have because whatever they buy will hold value better than cash. No money is being saved because the annual interest rates are between 4-10 percent; much less than the rates of inflation. And the government seems to think that printing more money will solve these problems.
These problems “began” when Mugabe started seizing land from wealthy white farmers in an attempt to redistribute the wealth among the native Zimbabwean population. The result, intentional or not, was that foreign investment was scared off for good. Zimbabwe’s now “solo” economy began to flounder with a lack of goods entering the market.
Let’s recap. Zimbabwe faces economic crisis (rated as a repressed economy by the Heritage Foundation, just above Burma, Iran, and North Korea) due to massive seizing of wealth and attempts at redistribution, restriction of free international trade, lack of foreign investment, and over-printing of new monies. What do you think would solve most of Zimbabwe’s economic problems? Perhaps some human dignity, some free trade, and a little less government involvement!
“The political left in America is emerging victorious,” writes Patrick Chisholm, and its true because “the era of big government is far from over. Trends are decidedly in favor of that quintessential leftist goal: massive redistribution of wealth.”
Over the past two decades, “Republicans’ capture of both Congress and the White House was, understandably, a demoralizing blow to the left. But the latter can take solace that “Republican” is no longer synonymous with spending restraint, free markets, and other ideals of the political right.”
Chisholm cites the fact that since 2000, “During the first five years of President Bush’s presidency, nondefense discretionary spending (i.e., spending decided on an annual basis) rose 27.9 percent, far more than the 1.9 percent growth during President Clinton’s first five years, according to the libertarian Reason Foundation. And according to Citizens Against Government Waste, the number of congressional ‘pork barrel’ projects under Republican leadership during fiscal 2005 was 13,997, more than 10 times that of 1994.”
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, since “discretionary spending is dwarfed by mandatory spending – spending that cannot be changed without changing the laws.”