Today, the Washington Post’s Outlook section published my article on the future of the American economy in the wake of the pandemic. They invited me to write it because of my earlier blog post on “Winners and Losers.” (Hey, despite all appearances, maybe blogs are still worth writing.)
The article is pretty gloomy. The short summary is that the COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate and reinforce the two primary economic trends of our time: consolidation and inequality. At this moment, I believe that more strongly than when I originally drafted the article two months ago. It seems to me that, as a society, we are caught between two unacceptable outcomes: either we reopen elementary schools (at least) so that parents can go to work, adding fuel to the epidemiological fire that is already burning throughout much of the country; or we keep schools closed and millions of predominantly low-income workers lose their jobs because they have to take care of their children. Choosing between your job and your children is not something that should happen in a supposedly rich society, yet there we are.
A few friends have asked me what I think the solution is. Here are the last three paragraphs of my first draft, which ended up on the cutting room floor:
I think it’s highly likely that the dust will clear eventually and that our economy will come back to life at some point in the next two or three years. I know there are certain disaster scenarios that can’t be ruled out, but I think they are unlikely. I’m not going to guess when things will return to a semblance of normal. Really, no one knows.
The question for now is: what will that economy look like?
By some measures, in the short term, COVID-19 will surely reduce inequality of wealth, and probably inequality of income as well. As a purely mechanical matter, the rich have a lot more money to lose when the stock market crashes and most sectors of the economy grind to a halt.
At the same time, however, this pandemic is throwing into stark relief how unequal the lives of Americans are today. Most of the upper-middle class and rich seem to fall into one of two categories. Those without children in the house trade suggestions on how to fill their time: virtual happy hours, virtual yoga, free streaming opera, binge TV-watching, etc. Those with children in the house trade suggestions on how to keep said children occupied so that we can get anything done or have any time to ourselves: educational apps and websites, home science experiments, live streaming from zoos and aquariums, etc.
There are exceptions, of course. Doctors generally make comfortable livings, and many of them are currently facing difficult working conditions and high risk of infection to save as many lives as possible. But the most difficult thing many rich people have to endure is figuring out how to get a Peapod or Instacart delivery slot, or finding a good recipe for canned tuna.
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
—Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
This is the most famous line from the most famous justification of market capitalism. Smith’s point is that it is individual self-interest that drives the economy. In the next paragraph, he goes on to describe how gains from trade explain the division of labor in a modern economy:
“The certainty of being able to exchange all that surplus part of the produce of his own labour, which is over and above his own consumption, for such parts of the produce of other men’s labour as he may have occasion for, encourages every man to apply himself to a particular occupation, and to cultivate and bring to perfection whatever talent or genius he may possess for that particular species of business.”
As I’ve said before, “whenever the butcher, the brewer, the baker, or the invisible hand is invoked, the reader should hear alarm bells going off.” The COVID-19 pandemic provides a particularly stark demonstration of the problems with Smith’s comforting fable and how it is used in contemporary politics.
I wanted to write this thing because it has become clear to me not only that our economic world is screwed up in all sorts of obvious ways, but also that the only viable path to fixing it runs through the Democratic Party. The Republican Party is what it is; even if it weren’t currently in the grip of a madman, it would at best be the party of Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Lindsay Graham, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, … you get the point. The 1% will always have their party. The problem is that the 99% don’t have theirs. The result has been the rightward drift of our entire political system, in which Republicans use their turns in power to advance their extremist agenda, and we Democrats use our at-bats to hold the line and nominate reasonable people to the Supreme Court.
So the important question is how the Democratic Party can be rallied behind a new economic vision that can both stem the rising tide of inequality and wrest control of the political landscape back from the conservatives. And that, of course, means we have to replace the economic vision of Clinton, Obama, Clinton, and most of the primary candidates today: the fantasy that private sector growth, aided by clever government nudges to make markets work better, can solve all problems for all people.
The working title of Take Back Our Party—the one I carried around in my head but was too embarrassed to tell people—was Manifesto of Our Democratic Party. (David Dayen eventually agreed with me that it was too presumptuous.) But they idea was very simple: They—the party establishment—have their Democratic Party; but we have a vision of a different Democratic Party. And ours is better. Hence the titles of Chapters 1 and 4.
The Democratic Party is at a crossroads. On a host of issues, it is clear what we stand for and how we differ from the Republicans: minority rights, abortion, immigration, gun control, climate change, the importance of facts, and, of course, whether or not the president is above the law. On economic issues, however, the picture is not so clear. Elizabeth Warren’s speech at St. Anselm’s College on Thursday is an attempt to fix that problem—and also a shot across the bow of the Democratic elite.
With each passing year, the widening gulf between the very rich and everyone else becomes more and more apparent. Even after ten years of economic expansion and with unemployment at historic lows, working-age adults in the bottom half of the income distribution make less than they did a full two generations ago, while the very rich now count their wealth with twelve digits instead of eleven. Yet the Democratic establishment insists that we must stay the course, and shared prosperity will be just around the corner.
Ever since the rise of the New Democrats in the 1980s and the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, the party’s power brokers have preached the gospel of “growth and opportunity.” (This is the story I tell in the first chapter of my new book, Take Back Our Party, available for free at The American Prospect.) All good things come from the private sector; government’s role is to help markets function efficiently, create the conditions for private sector growth, and help people participate in those markets. Hence welfare reform, financial deregulation, and Obamacare, among other things. Hence also the intense, coordinated assaults on Bernie Sanders in 2016 and both Sanders and Warren today.
This American Life‘s forays into politics and economics are generally less satisfying than their ordinary storytelling fare. That’s especially true when they try to answer some specific question, like “What is wrong with the Democratic Party?”—the subject of a segment last month. The story did have some telling moments, however, most vividly when moderate Congresswoman Cheri Bustos was trying to pitch the party’s forgettable and already-forgotten “Better Deal” message (which she helped design) to a local newspaper. Here are a couple of excerpts. (The audio begins at 53:50, or you can read the transcript).
First, on jobs:
We want to be in a position to help create 10 million good-paying, full-time jobs. There are still people hurting, and I think we need to acknowledge that and say that we want to do something about that.
Right. Well, Donald Trump says that, too. … He says exactly the same thing. Too many people are still out of work. You know, we need to do something about bringing back jobs.
And on Democratic support for cutting corporate taxes:
And so as long as [the corporate tax rate is] highest in the world, we’re not going to have corporations who are going to bring that money home. So there’s got to be some incentive.
OK. I didn’t—see, I think, once again, I have no idea what the Democratic Party actually stands for anymore. I didn’t during the 2016 campaign, either, which is probably why it wasn’t the winning campaign.
There’s a story you hear often these days. The story is that America has too many lawsuits: too many lawyers, too many people filing frivolous suits, too many excessive damages awards by juries, and so on. This story is the reason for all the “litigation reform” in recent decades: the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995, Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996, the state-level tort reform movement, Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, Ashcroft v. Iqbal, and so on.
There are two problems with this story. The first is that it isn’t true. Take medical malpractice, for example—a frequent target of tort reform advocates. Only a tiny fraction—probably under 2%—of people harmed by negligent medical care actually file suit. Of suits that are filed, according to an after-the-fact review by unaffiliated doctors, 63% involved errors by doctors, and another 17% showed some evidence of error. According to the most basic economic theory of torts, we want people harmed by negligence to sue, because otherwise potential defendants (doctors, companies, etc.) will not have sufficient incentive to make the efficient level of investments in preventing injuries. In short, it is highly likely that we suffer from not enough lawsuits, not from too many lawsuits.
The second problem is more important, however. That problem is that while the costs of litigation are real—not just money but also defensive medicine, intimidation of startups by patent trolls, intimidation of the media by billionaires—the exclusive focus on costs overlooks the crucial role of litigation in our democracy. That is the focus of the new book In Praise of Litigation by Alexandra Lahav, a colleague of mine at the University of Connecticut School of Law. (The book is also where I got the statistics in the previous paragraph.)
[Updated with Mnuchin’s position on charitable contribution deduction.]
I wrote two days ago about the fairy tale that you can lower tax rates for the very rich yet avoid lowering their actual taxes by eliminating those mythical beasts, loopholes and deductions. The basic problem with this story is that, at the very high end of the distribution, deductions and exclusions (with the possible exception of the deduction for charitable contributions) just don’t amount to very much as a percentage of income. Therefore, eliminating those deductions may increase rich people’s taxes by tens of thousands of dollars, but that is only a tiny proportion of their overall tax burden, and not enough to offset any significant rate decrease.
Unlike me, Daniel Hemel and Kyle Rozema are actual tax scholars (Hemel has a blog on Medium), and their detailed research largely tells the same story. They have a forthcoming paper that analyzes the mortgage interest deduction (MID) and shows that, while it is worth more dollars to rich people than poor people (for all the well-known reasons—bigger houses, higher marginal rates, itemizing), the MID causes people in the top 1% to pay a largershare of the overall tax burden. Therefore, eliminating the MID and using the increased tax revenue to reduce tax rates for everyone (what Mnuchin proposed in concept) would be a large windfall for the top 0.1% and a small windfall for the rest of the 1%.
My new book—Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality—is coming out on January 10 (although, of course, you can pre-order it from your local monopoly now). If you’d like more information about the book, the book website is now up at economism.net. (I used Medium instead of WordPress.com this time.) The post below, which is also the top story on the book website, summarizes the main themes of the book.
Income inequality is at levels not seen for a century. Many working families are struggling to get by, only kept afloat by Medicaid and food stamps. The federal minimum wage is just $7.25 per hour—below the poverty line even for a family of two. The bright outlook for corporate profits has driven the S&P 500 to record levels. Surely it makes sense to raise the minimum wage, forcing companies to dip into those profits to pay their workers a bit more.
But that’s not what you learn in Economics 101. The impact of a minimum wage is blissfully easy to model using the supply-and-demand diagram that dominates first-year economics courses.
Incoming Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin promised a big tax cut for corporations and the “middle class,” but not for the rich. “Any tax cuts for the upper class will be offset by less deductions that pay for it,” he said on CNBC.
This is impossible.
The tax cutting mantra comes in two forms. The more extreme one claims that reducing the overall tax burden on the rich will turbocharge the economy because they will save more, increasing investment, and will also work more, starting companies and doing all those other wonderful things that rich people do. The less extreme version is that we should lower tax rates to reduce distortions in the tax code, but we can maintain the current level of taxes paid by the rich by eliminating those famous “loopholes and deductions.” Donald Trump the candidate stuck with the former: his tax proposal, as scored by the Tax Policy Center, gave 47% of its total tax cuts to the top 1%, who also enjoyed by far the largest reduction in their average tax rate.
Mnuchin’s comment implies that he favors the latter version: lowering rates but making it up by “broadening the base.” This math might work for the merely rich—say, families making $200,000–400,000 per year. Take away the mortgage interest tax deduction, the deduction for retirement plan contributions, and the exclusion for employer-provided health care—which together can easily shield $50–75,000 in income—and you could probably fund several percentage points of rate decreases. (Of course, it would be politically impossible to completely eliminate those tax breaks, but that’s another story.)
This presidential election has come down to a referendum on Donald Trump, the manmuppet whatever he is. Tactically speaking, that’s probably a good thing. Trump is an absolutely horrendous life form, and as long as he can’t get more than 43% of the vote, he almost certainly can’t be president. (Gary Johnson just isn’t that appealing.) Of course, focusing on personal attributes has been the Hillary Clinton strategy all along, even dating back to the primaries, when she focused on her experience and seriousness in the face of Sanders’s popular proposals (single payer, free college, etc.). It’s been even more true of the general election, in which Clinton has gone out of her way to portray Trump as a unique, rather than as the culmination of the evolution of the Republican Party.
Ordinarily we bemoan the focus on personalities rather than issues. (How many millions of times have Democrats complained about voters who chose George W. Bush because they would rather have a beer with him than Al Gore or John Kerry?) This time around, we seem happy enough with the personality contest, either because it increases Clinton’s chances of winning, or because Trump is so toxic that, this time, personality really does matter.
Last week, Council of Economic Advisers chair Jason Furman took to the Washington Post to announce that President Obama has “narrowed the inequality gap.” Furman’s argument, bolstered by charts and data from a recent CEA report, has won over some of the more perceptive commentators on the Internet, including Derek Thompson, who concludes that Obama “did more to combat [income inequality] than any president in at least 50 years.” In 538, the headline on Ben Casselman’s summary reads, “The Income Gap Began to Narrow Under Obama.”
But is it true?
I already wrote about the key misdirection in Furman’s argument: his measures of reduced inequality compare the current world not against the world of eight years ago, but against a parallel universe in which, essentially, the policies of George W. Bush remained in place. (This is not something either Thompson or Casselman fell for; they both realized what Furman was actually arguing.) Today I want to address the larger question of whether inequality is actually getting worse or better.
Looking at that chart, and at Furman’s triumphant tweet, you would think inequality had declined during the Obama administration.
Not so fast.
The first thing to understand is what that chart actually says. It does not say that the top 0.1 percent’s share of national income has gone down by almost one percentage point (rightmost column) since Barack Obama took office, nor does it say that the bottom 20 percent’s income share has gone up by more than half a percentage point (leftmost column).
In the Times a couple of days ago, Gregory Mankiw made a half-hearted case for eliminating the estate tax that was so weak I’m not even sure he convinced himself. The core of his argument is that the estate tax violates the principle of horizontal equity, according to which “similar people should face similar burdens.” The problem, on his view, is that between two rich couples that each amass $20 million, the Profligates who consume their wealth before death end up paying lower taxes than the Frugals who maintain a modest lifestyle. “To me, this does not seem right,” Mankiw concludes.
First of all, it’s not even clear why this example violates horizontal equity. The Profligates and the Frugals are not “similar people”—Mankiw specifically constructed the example that way. They may have each earned the same amount of money, but they have vastly different consumption habits.
Second, it’s not clear that the Frugals are paying more tax than the Profligates. Their estate will pay higher taxes, but by then they are dead; the estate tax does not directly limit their personal consumption in the slightest. In fact, the ones whose estate will pay the tax are the ones who apparently are not interested in consumption in the first place. Now, the defense of Mankiw is that the Frugals do care about how much money they can pass on to their children, so the estate tax does affect their utility. But that brings up the third, and most important point . . .