- Education: Even Romney admitted (obviously unintentionally) that wealth makes a real difference, since he noted that rewards depend in part on education. People with wealth receive the finest educations from pre-K through post-graduate, getting preferences at the best children’s academies in Manhattan and at the highest ranked universities like Harvard and Yale. People without wealth lose out from the very beginning, with inferior schools that are no longer fully supported by the public, as charter and for-profit schools take over offering inferior educations that no patrician family would ever accept. The poor and middle class take on enormous loans and work loads to finance even their public university educations, since state support has slipped down to a mere 20-30% of the cost of that education. That makes study and grades and success much more difficult for them.
- Working hard (with Contacts/Influence/lobbyists): The wealthy are introduced early to the most important people of influence in society, like the Vanderbilts and the Astors of old, the private equity fund managers and the Wall Street bankers that can smooth their way through all the trials and tribulations of their ‘work’ careers–i.e., becoming owners of major league baseball team when you have no relevant experience (George W. Bush, with the aid of his papa and his papa’s influential and rich partners) or setting up a venture capital fund (like Romney’s Bain Capital). These connections ultimately permit the wealthy to mingle in a monied society that offers the right contact for every venture to succeed–including lobbyists to help a wealthy entrepreneur get his business going and ability to ‘invest’ in politicians who are willing to risk alienating the middle class to support preferential taxation of the rich.
- By the way, lots of the not-rich work quite hard, often at thankless jobs that provide no cushion to deal with life’s difficult blows or at a job that, at minimum wage, still leaves their family below the poverty line. Without the contacts and influence that smooth the way of the rich, there chances of moving up are much more limited. If they persevere, have an entrepreneurial idea, and catch a break, they may be able to move beyond where they are, but they have to do a lot more than just ‘work hard.’
- Taking Risks (and Getting Subsidies and Preferential Tax Provisions): The poor take a risk every time they get up in the morning–will their health hold out so they can keep working? will they be able to make it to their job in that car that needs a new starter? can they manage to arrange for someone to take care of their kids while they work or will they have to be “latch-key kids” yet another day? But they don’t usually have the kind of capital nest-egg to take a risk with in the way that Romney means it–the excitement of opening a new business demands from the poor and near-poor Herculean efforts to pull together family, friends, and workers to support their business ideas. Those with money, on the other hand, have a head start on all of this. Bill Gates’ parents offered him an educated life of relative ease; he could ‘play’ in the garage on that dream of his rather than running heavy machinery or working behind a counter at a McDonalds. And those with contacts and money are able (and willing) to hire the best lobbyists to ensure that they get all the tax-advantaged benefits and subsidies that they can finnangle (or buy) from local, state and federal legislators for their activities. That includes favorable tax provisions that allow them to keep a significant percentage of their wealth (and to fight for even more favorable provisions), such as the carried interest provision that gave Romney a preferential rate on almost all of his compensation income, the preferential capital gains rate that gives all the wealthy a low tax rate on their income from trading stocks and bonds with each other, and the various ways that the tax code subsidizes the kinds of personal deductions that provide the most benefit to those with money–from the charitable contribution deduction (including the ability to give away stock and claim a deduction for its value rather than for your actual basis) and the mortgage interest deduction (for interest on home loans up to a million plus $100,000) to all of those provisions that allow the wealthy to retire well–pension plans, exclusion of life insurance benefits, etc. Then there are the many subsidies they get various governments to provide for their businesses, presumably by using those long-term family/status connections to wine, dine and influence. They include low-cost loans such as those enjoyed by Romney’s Bain Capital for various businesses that Bain Capital was ‘turning around’. (Handily, they can make low-taxed profits for themselves even when their turnarounds fail, with all those subsidies, so that the taxpayer sometimes ends up paying for their losses along with the fired workers.) See the links provided in the posting yesterday on Romney’s reluctance to release his tax returns, which discuss some of the subsidies and other benefits to Romney’s business.
by Linda Beale
There is an interesting book that I am just beginning, by George A. Akerlof & Robert J. Shiller. It’s called “Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism”. The jacket says that the authors “challenge the economic wisdom that got us into this mess, and put forward a bold new vision that will transform economics and restore prosperity.” It is clearly a Keynesian approach–the jacket, again, says they make the case for “a more robust, behaviorally informed Kenyesianism”.
Sounds like a tall order, and I have not yet read or thought about enough of the book to know whether it is satisfied or not. But I do find the emphasis on fairness of considerable interest.
Fairness has long been a keystone of tax policy, and yet there are a number of tax scholars who consider efficiency the quintessential policy consideration and sometimes appear to relegate fairness to the corner for hobgoblins of small minds. So I wonder if this book, and its recognition of the overriding importance of fairness to economic analysis, is indicative of a fundamental change in the academic approach to economics and related fields that have tended to push fairness aside.
Here’s a quote from Albert Rees (Chicago PhD in labor economics) that starts off the second chapter on fairness.
The neoclassical theory of wage determination, which I taught for 30 years and have tried to explain in my textbook…has nothing to say about fairness. … Beginning in the mid-1970s, I began to find myself in a series of roles in which I have participated in setting or controlling wages or salaries. … In none of htese roles did I find the theory that I taught so long to be the slightest help. The factors involved in setting wages and salaries in the real world seemed to be very different from those specified in the neoclassical theory. The one factor that seemed to be of overwhelming importance in all these situations was fairness. (Akerlof & Shiller at 20, quoting Rees, The Economics of Trade Unions, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1973).
The authors go on to admit that Rees exaggerates, but then they provide a critical insight.
However many articles there have been on fairness, and however important economists may consider fairness, it has been continually pushed into a back channel in economic thinking. … But fairness may be just as important as the economic motivations that are given prime time. (Akerlof & Shiller at 20.)
So what economic theories of fairness do the authors suggest merit consideration? They highlight socilogy’s equity theory of exchanges, which consider far more than the monetary value of the counterparties’ positions, adding subjective evaluations about status, gratitude and similar factors. Another if the theory of social norms, that suggests that people are happiest when they live up to what they think they should be doing, including conducting themselves fairly with others (and being treated fairly by others).
And how should fairness be taken into account? Essentially, Alerkoff and Shiller argue that the old way of treating “real” economics as fundamental and fairness as an afterthought has to go. In stead, if fairness motivations are discounted, justification must be provided for doing so.
This approach, they say, explains much better than traditional economics the reality of unemployment and the fact that most firms pay their workers more than the market would require. It has to do with one’s sense of fairness–if workers sense they are being treated more than fairly (and their wage is the ulimate symbol of this treatment), they will fully buy into the goals of their employers.” If they are treated unfairly, they will tend to shirk. Id. at 105.
The difficulty of course, is in settling upon a definitive theory of fairness. In tax, we often talk about “ability to pay”, in a relative sense, as the critical definition, which is in turn the justification for a progressive rate schedule that taxes wealthy people at a rate considerably (or, after 40 years of rate lowering, somewhat) higher than it taxes middle income people. Libertarians, among others, have pushed back against the ability to pay concept of fairness, arguing for one version or another of a flat tax. It is one of the critical struggles, from my perspective, in the current class warfare whereby some groups are pushing for zero taxation on capital income (through a national sales tax or consumption-base rather than an income-based tax system). In other words, though there is a long-held consensus position about fairness in tax, there is currently considerable foment around the very concept of fairness. I’m glad to see fairness appropriately emphasized, but that is just the first step to developing a fairer tax system or a more complete economic theory.