Economic Myths #13 – Wealth Inequality and “The 1%”

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The inequality of wealth and income has been in the news again lately. According to the Daily Telegraph, 1% of the world’s population will own half of its wealth by next year. The Executive Director of Oxfam, who provided the figure, said that “an explosion of inequality was holding back the fight against poverty”, asking the rhetorical question “do we really want to live in a world where 1% own more than the rest of us combined”?

The mainstream debate over this issue fails to understand the true nature of the problem. The pro-free market side are wont to point out that such inequality “doesn’t matter” and governments should not do anything to interfere with the progress of business. The likely call from the opposite side, however, is for increased taxation and redistribution and, indeed, Oxfam itself stressed the need for a greater crackdown on tax avoidance by large, multinational corporations. However, the reality is much more subtle than simply left vs. right and, indeed, the debate produces a false dichotomy between “pro-business” and “pro-government/anti-poverty”.

On the one hand, we can agree that wealth inequality does not, on its own, create any problems for the generation of wealth and the reduction of poverty. The common attitude towards the rich appears to assume that someone like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates has tens of billions of dollars lying around in a bank account for them to spend and enjoy. The reality is that these figures represent the value of capital goods – machines, tools, factories and so on – that are invested in producing goods and services that everyone wants to buy. If these resources are in the hands of just a few people – say, “the 1%” – who most accurately devote them to the most urgently desired needs of consumers, then there is nothing economically deleterious with wealth inequality. Indeed, wealth inequality, in this scenario, is exceedingly good as any attempt to reduce it would divert resources into the hands of those less capable of directing them to the ends that people desire, or into those who would consume them. It is capital investment – more capital invested in more production processes to churn out more products that people need – and not taxes and redistribution that solves the plight of poverty.

However, this scenario is conditional upon the crucial aspect that resources must be in the hands of those who are best suited to serving the needs of consumers. In other words, those who are rich must have become so by meeting those needs. However, it is patently obvious that the current ownership structure does not reflect the voluntary choices of consumers. Rather, it is the product of crony capitalism, of cheap printed money that is ploughed into malinvestments and of taxpayer funded bail outs when it all collapses. The growth in wealth inequality is due not to the fact that consumers are voluntarily choosing to place that wealth in the hands of a few select people; it is because the government is throwing cheap money at this tiny elite so they can steal all of the world’s assets.

What, then, is the solution to this problem? Taxation and redistribution would clearly compound the economic evils rather than solve them. And, in any case, in spite of the hullaballoo about tax avoidance, the rich will always be able to influence tax policy to their benefit and to arrange their affairs so as to avoid it as much as possible. Rather, what is needed is a wholesale withdrawal of government from either supporting or hindering anyone in the pursuit of gaining wealth. All wealth should be obtained through the voluntary nexus of serving the needs of consumers and everyone should gain their wealth through their abilities and not through their political connections. What might such a world look like? Would it encourage wealth inequality or would such inequality be unlikely? One the one hand, it is arguable that wealth would still be highly concentrated. Genuine entrepreneurship is a rare talent and is likely to always remain so. However, if that is the case it is also likely that those particular individuals who own the world’s resources will rotate relatively quickly, with the top dogs remaining on the pedestal for only a short time. Indeed one aspect of the current wealth divide that is ignored is whether the same people remain stuck within their wealth/income group or whether there is relatively fluid movement between the different groups. Successful entrepreneurs make their biggest successes when they are small, nimble and contrarian. Once they have achieved their wealth, however, and their enterprises have morphed into large, multinational companies, they become large, unwieldy, inefficient and complacent. A former rebel becomes a part of the establishment who then becomes vulnerable to the insights of later entrepreneurs. Part of this can perhaps be seen with the technology industry where no, single player has managed to dominate each successive era. Microsoft put a PC into everyone’s home in the 1980s-90s; Google was the number one in internet search; Facebook was on top with social networking; and we are now, seemingly, entering a fourth phase where Apple seems to dominate smartphone technology. No single outfit has been able to carry through its dominance from one era to the next. Corporate dynasties and everlasting companies controlling everything will certainly not be a feature of a genuinely free market. Even a stock investor such as Warren Buffett, who has profited from a great many businesses in numerous decades, would be unlikely to achieve the wealth that he has done. Buffett’s mantra of value investing relies upon the price of a stock to become undervalued relative to the underlying value of the business, and for the price to then reach parity with, or exceed, that value. But the large distortions in stock prices – both up and down – have been precisely because of central bank flooding the markets with cheap, freshly printed money that results in excessive booms and busts. It is unlikely that Buffett, in a genuine free market, would have been able to buy and sell at such favourable prices as he was able to do in recent decades. On the other hand, however, it is also possible that a free market would reduce wealth inequality. As wealth creation ensues and the standard of living rises, ordinary people will find themselves with increasing amounts of disposable income that they may decide to divert into saving rather than increased consumption. Such funds, through savings accounts and the bond market, may form the backbone of investment funds that are ploughed into productive use. Thus, ultimate ownership of wealth may be more diverse than it is at present. Either way, however, we can be sure that the resulting structure of production and ownership will be one that best serves the desires of consumers and changes and adapts as the tastes of consumers change. Ultimately, it will always be the everyday folk, through their purchasing habits, who decide on the level of wealth inequality – not governments and central banks handing out favours to their political cronies.

Economic Myths #10 – Taxes Benefit “Us”

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During the revelations that large corporate entities such as Amazon, Google and Starbucks were arranging their affairs so as to pay as minimal tax as possible on profits earned in the UK, the indignation from the general public seemed to centre on the belief that the “lost” government revenue was somehow a “lost” benefit to the average citizen. After all, won’t lower tax revenues result in fewer hospitals and worse schools? Indeed tax avoidance (together with the deliberate blurring of the legal and moral distinction between that concept and that of the explicitly illegal tax evasion) has become a favourite topic of heavily indebted governments as they attempt to balance their books without reducing their profligate spending. The speech of Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the UK Treasury, to the Liberal Democrat Party Conference this Autumn is typical of their hubristic attitude but now with a somewhat chilling veneer:

Liberal Democrats have led the crackdown on tax avoidance. The investment I announced at this conference in 2010, is now bringing in an extra £7bn. We are now insisting that tax dodgers pay the right tax up front – they will only get any money if their scheme is later proved in the courts to work. And we are using psychologists and behavioural economists in HMRC to get the money quickly. Tax dodgers beware – we know where you live, we know how much you owe, and now we know how you think. Your behaviour is unacceptable, and we are coming for our money.

Part of the vitriol of the general public is explained by the fact that people want some kind of tax equality and don’t want to be shouldering the burden of public expenditure themselves when others appear to be shirking their alleged responsibility. Indeed many of the cries for reform all appear to be in the direction of making people their “fair share” of taxes – an amount that is, conveniently, never quantified but always means more. Yet the core focus appears to be that life will somehow be worse off without Amazon and Google paying tax in the UK.

All of this is nonsense. Profits that are retained by private shareholders do not magically “vanish” from the economy. Rather, they are reinvested in productive enterprises that create capital in order to churn out more products that people want to buy at lower prices. Fewer profits retained by investors means fewer capital goods and fewer products on the shelves. If that money disappears into the hands of the government, it is not invested prudently in productive business. Most of it vanishes into the pockets of favoured government contractors to spend on wasteful projects – with very little resulting in marked improvements for the average citizen. This government demanding more money is the same government that, in 2012-13, wasted £1.2bn on subsidising foreign farmers through the Common Agricultural Policy, £20.6bn on public sector fraud, £3.0bn on benefits to people who don’t need them, £145m on “ghost patients” on the books of GP surgeries, £300m on unused medicine, and £113m in subsidies to trade unions1. Every pound that is taken by government to be spent on these wasteful ends is one pound less that can be invested in genuine, private enterprise that must produce products that people wish to buy. Which category of spending – public or private – are we really worse off without?

Some of the more extreme rhetoric – that the likes of Amazon and Google have “blood on their hands” because of all of those patients in hospitals who cannot be treated because of the lost tax revenue – is akin to a sick joke. What about the lives saved because government was not able to use Amazon’s tax revenue to throw bombs at civilians in the Middle East? Yet even if we ignore this the prevailing attitude is that these companies should be punished for setting up businesses, creating jobs and producing stuff that people want to buy – and right at the time when we are at the depths of a deep, government-induced economic malaise when we should be celebrating what little success there is. In any case, every company has to pay tax somewhere even if it is at a lower rate in an alternative jurisdiction. If Google pays tax in Ireland then what is wrong with that? To the rejoinder that this means a foreign government and foreign public services are benefitting from profits earned in the UK, well doesn’t the £11bn foreign aid budget do the same thing?

Increased taxes on the people that take risks to provide us with jobs and produce goods and services that improve our lives do not make things better for “us”. It only benefits the government and those recipients of its bloated, wasteful spending. Fewer taxes and vastly reduced spending would be far better for all of “us”.

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1The Taxpayers’ Alliance, Bumper Book of Government Waste 2014. From the same report: £32K was paid by a council to compensate a man who slipped on a berry in a churchyard; £1K was spend on a council officer to investigate a picture taken of the mayor looking at her phone during an Armed Forces Day ceremony; £4K was spent by a council on a whisky tasting event for international golfers; and £70 was spent by the Forestry Commission on a bunny outfit.