Friday, December 30, 2016

Plus ca change

From Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons, which I am reading (and so far enjoying) on the view that I might use it in Part 3 of my literature book (U.S. from the Civil War through World War I):

"He does anything he likes to, without any regard for what people think. Then why should he mind so furiously when the least little thing reflects upon him, or on anything or anybody connected with him?"

Eugene patted her hand. "That's one of the greatest puzzles of human vanity, dear; and I don't pretend to know the answer. In all my life, the most arrogant people that I've known have been the most sensitive. The people who have done the most in contempt of other people's opinions and who consider themselves the highest above it, have been the most furious if it went against them. Arrogant and domineering people can't stand the least, lightest, faintest breath of criticism. It just kills them."

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Beatles' Let It Be (Spectorized version)

I hadn't played the official Phil Spector version of Let It Be for probably 30 years, since I have alternate versions that I prefer (the original Get Back as compiled by Glyn Johns, plus various compilations of outtakes and alternative versions). But needing something fresh to play in the health club, I decided to save it on Spotify and give it a shot.

The Spector version is better than I remembered or expected. Although all the extra orchestration is a bit questionable, only on The Long and Winding Road does it really go beyond the pale, and that song drags enough to need something (albeit, not what Spector gave it - one can appreciate how much lighter a touch George Martin had on orchestral backing for their songs).

Let It Be has a different George Harrison solo, which I hadn't heard for the 30 years. It's well-done, but less original (more standard issue late-60s Lead Guitar Part) than what George usually played.

You can see how they try to cover up the lack of Lennon songs by including Across the Universe (well worth it, but from 1968), his lead vocals on Dig It, Maggie Mae, and of course the delightful retread of One After 909. He hadn't written (or at least completed writing) anything suitable apart from I Dig a Pony and Don't Let Me Down - which Spector disliked, so relegated to Side B of a single.  There's an outtake where John slags himself for not having anything good on hand for them to play.

The album remains the Beatles' only failure to convert material on hand into an entirely suitable finished product. But over the 40+ years since, they've done their fans and themselves a disservice by not releasing (a) an expanded version of the movie that shows more of the tensions (c'mon, it's old news by now), plus (b) a box set of the sessions - say, one CD for Let It Be plus other official releases from the sessions, one for the Glyn Johns versions of Get Back, and two more for outtakes. There's enough good  (if often rough and unpolished) extra material from the sessions to support, say, two 50 or 60-minute extra disks, one from Twickenham and one from the Apple sessions.  McCartney's Let It Be Naked (with a ridiculously short, inadequate, and unlistenable "bonus" disk) was worse than nothing as it apparently supplanted doing the reissue properly.

Or they could just put everything from the sessions on iTunes and let people make their own compilations.

Okay, I guess that's enough Beatles nerding for now.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Simple border adjustment example

Given all the talk (and confusion) about how border adjustment in a properly designed destination-based corporate tax would work, I thought a really simple example might help.  BTW, I myself find this unintuitive - my brain tends to reject it, so every time I think about it after a long time away, I have to work it out again for myself.  But anyway, here goes.

Say a U.S. company sells imported Scottish wool sweaters for $100.  To keep things simple, no profit - the company simply buys them from a Scottish firm for $100 (and has no other expenses).  Suppose the dollar and the Euro are in exact parity, so the Scottish firm gets 100.

Since the U.S. company has no profit, it doesn't have income tax liability.  (Again, this is just to keep things simple.)  But now Congress enacts a 20% destination-based corporate tax (DBCT). So amounts paid for imports are no longer deductible.

Now the U.S. company is going to have to pay $20 of tax upon selling the Scottish sweater for $100 to a U.S. consumer.  So it is only willing to pay the Scottish firm $80.

No dice, so far as the Scottish firm is concerned, if it is selling as many sweaters as it likes on world markets for $100 = 100 and the dollar remains in parity with the Euro.  But if the dollar appreciates against the Euro so that $80 = 100, everyone''s happy and it all works just as before.

Now let's add the export case.  A U.S. firm was making cotton sweaters for $100 and selling them for $100, both at home and to EU firms. But now, under the 20% DBCT, it's going to exclude from "income" the amount that it gets from foreign purchasers, while still expensing the $100 that it spends. Now it only needs $80 from EU purchasers, rather than $100, to break even as it was before. And again this happens without any change if the dollar appreciates against the Euro so that $80 = 100.

Now, how does the currency shift happen?  Ay, there's the rub, as they say, but now that supply and demand have changed as described above things should at some point get there, at least in the simple story. (Real world institutions and complications may have a huge interim effect, however.) Or to put it differently, there won't be a stable equilibrium until they get there, and until that moment shifts in supply and demand at the old exchange rate will be pushing in that direction. But how and when it gets there is actually, in my view, potentially quite disruptive in ways we might not like.

One last point about all this. The appreciation of the dollar against the Euro (etc.) would reduce the dollar value of Americans' foreign asset holdings, and increase the Euro (etc.) value of foreigners' U.S. asset holdings.  As Alan Viard has noted:

“The wealth transfers could be quite large. Assume, for simplicity, that foreigners hold $10 trillion of American assets and that Americans hold the same amount of foreign assets. Adding a border adjustment to a 20 percent (tax-inclusive) VAT would increase foreigners’ wealth by $2 trillion and reduce Americans’ wealth by $2 trillion. Because cross-border holdings are balanced in this example, the border adjustment would not change the present discounted value of federal revenue, but it would cause $2 trillion of that revenue to be collected from Americans rather than from foreigners.

What is more: “Because the United States is a net debtor country, the border adjustment would actually cause a net loss to the U.S. Treasury ... and foreign investors’ gains would exceed American investors’ losses.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Tariffs and border adjustments

Yesterday the Trump transition team said it wanted a 5% tariff on all imports, today it's up to 10%. Who knows, maybe by tomorrow it will be 15% or 20%.

Supposedly this would happen either by executive order or else as part of corporate tax reform.

Any guesses out there regarding whether other countries would retaliate against U.S. goods? Not my field, but I suspect this could be a really major body blow to the U.S. and world economies. If it tanks things sufficiently, Trump may conclude he needs to do something really big to distract voters from the mess. War? Use nuclear weapons abroad? Why not?

Meanwhile, talk continues about the possibility of enacting a destination-based corporate tax, which CNBC says (using a simple example) could "boost the taxes on a sweater from $1.75 to $17."

Among the experts who has been addressing the border adjustment issue is Alan Viard at AEI, who notes that, while exchange rate changes (appreciation of the dollar) would over time wash out the impact on cross-border trade, how fast it would happen is debatable. "Logically, it should be a quick, or immediate adjustment, but economists are not good at predicting speed."  Plus, as he's noted elsewhere in relation to the issue of adopting a VAT (which likewise taxes imports but not exports), there can be (a) temporary discouragement of trade as institutions adjust, (b) a giant transitional giveaway of revenues from U.S. taxpayers to foreign persons, and (c) adverse effects on trade in particular sectors.

Most bizarre of all is the suggestion above, from the article on linking the tariff to tax reform, that Trump wants to do the destination-based corporate tax PLUS a 10% tariff.

He's like a child playing with tinker toys that have bombs attached on the underside.

Latest developments in my literature book

I've managed to finish Part 2 of my literature book (now entitled "Literature and the Rise of Toxic Inequality") before the break.

Part 1 (England and France During the Age of Revolution) has chapters on Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Stendhal's The Red and the Black, and Balzac's Pere Goriot. Part 2 (England from the 1840s Through World War I) has chapters on Dickens's A Christmas Carol, Trollope's The Way We Live Now, and Forster's Howards End. Each part opens and closes with short intro and then summary sections that knit the three works together and find overall themes or trajectories, related to that of the book as a whole.

I'm now ready to start Part 3 (The United States Between the Civil War and World War I, or perhaps just pre-World War I). I'm planning 3 chapters, the second and third of which will be Dreiser (The Financier and/or The Titan) and Wharton (The House of Mirth). While I do plan to take a true break between semesters, I've thought I could read and cogitate a bit on this part, which leads to the question of what book from earlier in the era I should put first.

My first choice was Horatio Alger's aptly-named Ragged Dick (despite recognizing what a comedown it would be in terms of literary quality from everything else on the list so far).  But my gawd is it thin. There are a few interesting points here - e.g., these really aren't the Horatio Alger myth as we think of it but something different (handsome boy uses older male benefactors to find modest success), but this point has already been well written about, plus is tangential to the themes I have in mind in this project. There are a few other interesting aspects to think about - e.g., hatred of rich boys who are described as effeminate, the role of villains, intense self-consciousness about putting on airs and acting "aristocratic," looks plus honesty plus "pluck" are the keys to success as distinct from intelligence or hard work - but I'm still not feeling it at the moment.

Two other possibilities are Howells' The Rise of Silas Lapham and Twain/Warner's The Gilded Age. But I've never read either, so I don't start out with the feeling that either or both might feel right. I'll probably read them over the break.

A more out-of-the-box idea is urban/office life from 3 shorter works that straddle the Civil War: Poe's The Business Man (1840), Melville's Bartleby The Scrivener (1853), and then Alger's Ragged Dick (which is from 1867). But only if I can make it all fit together, which actually strikes me at the moment, perhaps unreasonably, as not entirely impossible. It would certainly be a change of pace, possibly a good thing in terms of sustaining the overall scheme.

Any other suggestions out there?

UPDATE: Based on suggestions plus my own looking around, I may add Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons, if it passes the test when I read it. Will also consider Twain/Warner The Gilded Age. Plus, Silas Lapham still in play.  Poe / Melville / Alger will probably just show up in the Intro to Part 3, where I think they can help set the stage re. a couple of central themes.

Upcoming NYU Tax Policy Colloquium

Starting a month from tomorrow, Rosanne Altshuler and I will be co-hosting the 22nd(!) NYU Tax Policy Colloquium. Here is our schedule for the semester. All sessions meet from 4 to 5:50 pm in Vanderbilt 208 at NYU Law School.

1.  Monday, January 23 – Lily Batchelder, NYU Law School. “Accounting for Behavioral Biases in Business Tax Reform: The Case of Expensing.”
2.  Monday, January 30 – Mark Gergen, Berkeley Law School.  “How to Tax Global Capital.”
3.  Monday, February 6 – Alan Auerbach, Berkeley Economics Department. “U.S. Inequality, Fiscal Progressivity, and Work Disincentives: An Intragenerational Accounting.”

4.  Monday, February 13 – Allison Christians, McGill Law School.  “Human Rights at the Borders of Tax Sovereignty”
5.  Tuesday, February 21 – Jason Oh, UCLA Law School. "Are the Rich Responsible for Progressive Marginal Rates?"
6.  Monday, February 27 – Stephen Shay, Harvard Law School. “’A Better Way’ Tax Reform: Theory and Practice.”
7.  Monday, March 6 – Scott Dyreng, Duke Business School. “Trade-offs in the Repatriation of Foreign Earnings.”
8.  Monday, March 20 – Daniel Hemel, University of Chicago Law School.  "Federalism as a Safeguard of Progressive Taxation."  
9.  Monday, March 27 – Leonard Burman, Urban Institute.  “Is U.S. Corporate Income Double-Taxed?”

10.  Monday, April 3 – Kathleen Delaney Thomas, University of North Carolina Law School.  “Taxing the Gig Economy.”
11.  Monday, April 10 – Julie Cullen, UC San Diego Department of Economics. “Political Alignment and Tax Evasion.”
12.  Monday, April 17 – Miranda Perry Fleischer, University of San Diego Law School.  “The Libertarian Case for a Universal Basic Income.”
13.  Monday, April 24 – Joel Slemrod, University of Michigan Business School.  “Taxing Hidden Wealth: The Consequences of U.S. Enforcement Initiatives on Evasive Foreign Accounts.”
14.  Monday, May 1 – Richard Vann, University of Sydney Law School.  "International tax post-BEPS: Is the corporate tax really all that bad?”

Monday, December 19, 2016

A destination-based corporate tax?

Lynlee Browning unsurprisingly does a nice job summarizing the current debate over the possibility of enacting a destination-based corporate tax (DBCT).  One point that could be added, however, is that, if they enacted it, there would be NO reason of international competitiveness to keep the rate as low as they have it, w0%.

Keep in mind, a (DBCT) is a consumption tax.  So, leaving aside a lot of important design details, in some ways it's like having a better-designed retail sales tax.

Only the ignorant and the disingenuous (but both groups are legion in Washington) would assert that, say, a comprehensive and decently enforced 40% retail sales tax would raise "competitiveness" issues in re. attracting global investment to the United States.

If the DBCT is indeed enacted, it would certainly serve a lot of folks right (but also raise rate-change transition issues that David Bradford identified) if first (a) the Republicans were drummed out of office for gutting Obamacare, Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, and then (b) Democrats different from those we now know raised the DBCT rate to 40 or 50 percent (with accompanying measures addressing both high-end and low-end inequality).

Apple EU state aid case, latest developments

Today the European Commission finally released a redacted version of its decision in the Apple EU state aid case.  (The delay reflected stripping out confidential business info, etc., that had been cited in the full official decision.)  I haven't had a chance to read it yet but will be doing so shortly and will then offer here any comments that I might have.  At a first glance, it's certainly in the ballpark of what I had expected.

Also today, Ireland published a short statement explaining its grounds for disagreeing with the EC verdict.

The main legal issue Ireland raises (apart from predictable boilerplate and disagreements about proper EC review scope, etc.) that will likely be at the heart of the ultimate ECJ decision is that of undue “selectivity.”   There’s really no dispute that Ireland (a) was selectively favorable to Apple as compared to domestic companies, but (b) was not selectively favorable to Apple as compared to other multinationals.  Thus, while I am not an expert on EU law, that is the nub of the legal issue.  Is generally treating inbound multinationals more favorably than other companies improper selectivity – or would impermissible selectivity require, say, favoring Apple but not Google, Starbucks, Amazon, etc.?

Of course, I don’t know enough about EU institutions to have a view as to whether this will be decided based on legal argumentation or someone’s policy judgments, which presumably would be responding (one way or another) to the current strains that the EU is feeling given nationalist sentiments all around.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Video of my TV appearance on Brian Lehrer's POTUS 2016

The video is available here.  I enjoyed this show, which is definitely more highbrow than a lot of the more mass-marketed TV content. I first appear on-screen about 4:50 in, and then I start speaking at about 7 minutes in.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Tax base design and holiday greetings

A holiday email that I got from a Washington budget expert with whom I am on friendly terms read in part: "May your revenues exceed your outlays in the year ahead."

I responded: "I see that you are taking a cash-flow rather than a Haig-Simons perspective here!  Otherwise, you would have said: 'May the present value of your expected future net receipts increase in the year ahead.'"

TV appearance tonight

Tonight, at 7:30 pm EST, I'll be appearing on a CUNY-TV show, POTUS 2016, hosted by Brian Lehrer, along with economists James K. Galbraith and James Bessen.  We'll be discussing the significance to U.S. employment of globalization, technological change, and (in my bailiwick) international tax policy.  Topics such as the Trump Carrier deal may also come up.

UPDATE: CUNY-TV may not be widely available through cable services, but I am told the show will be accessible online tomorrow (Dec. 15) via .

FURTHER UPDATE: Hopefully online soon.  Teaser here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Good news about the weather

After today, we are 3.3% done with Adjusted Winter (my term for the on average coldest 91-day stretch of the year). Only 88 days until Adjusted Spring (starting on March 11).

Book on literature and high-end inequality

Here is the latest version of my opening chapter.  I think I've progressed towards locating the narrative arc.  Inquiries from agents or editors welcome.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Inspiration for the House Republicans' "A Better Way" tax plan?

But I don't seem to remember Bill McKay (Robert Redford in the brilliant 1972 film, The Candidate) telling California voters about the destination basis.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Identity politics vs. economic self-interest

Both Paul Krugman and Matt Yglesias have interesting recent posts about how identity politics often matters more than actual economic self-interest. Hence, for example, white Trump supporters side with someone who shares their values about fast food, even though that person is engaged in an effort to shred their retirement and safety net benefits, and angrily reject candidates who favor their economic interests but come off to them as snobby elitists (e.g., because they want to steer people towards eating fresh produce).

This is an extremely important point about politics, obviously central to the 2016 election, and something I blogged about the day before the election in re. the irony of white seniors favoring the party that wanted to take away their retirement benefits, out of anger that the other party wanted to extend such benefits to non-whites.

As I noted in the earlier post, the paradox of voting (i.e., the fact that one's probabilistic effect on the outcome is too small to justify, not just the act of voting but even bothering to find out where one's interests lie) plays a large role in this.  So does our having evolved strong tribal instincts that served gene transmission well when human society consisted of roving 150-person bands that might encounter hostiles, and that also might have internal power struggles that would determine who got scarce resources.  It doesn't work quite so well in a mass society where people's lack of focus on their own economic interests, when choosing affiliations in the highly abstract political setting, makes them ripe for cold-blooded exploitation.

I am starting to see that the battle between elites, epitomized by the 2016 election, is actually a rich theme within the confines of my literature book.  I'm currently close (I hope) to finishing a chapter, on E.M. Forster's Howards End, that is the first work on my list to raise the issue of dueling business and intellectual elites.  What one can see there is interestingly related to what prevails in the U.S. today, different in key respects yet a recognizable precursor.

There will also be aspects of this theme in, say, Bonfire of the Vanities, in the Scorsese film Wolf of Wall Street (which I'm planning to discuss in the book's last chapter before the conclusion), and also in It's a Wonderful Life, which I also may discuss (as I've decided against books-only).

Thursday, December 08, 2016

New research by Raj Chetty et al on the "fading American dream"

Raj Chetty et al have just posted important new research (also summarized here) concerning what they call the "fading American dream."  Here is what I wrote about this research,  but was asked to keep offline until its public dissemination date, when I saw it discussed informally a few months back:

The research examines historical data pertaining to the following issue.  Suppose we defined the "American Dream" as positing that in each generation the kids should do better than their parents.  One might imagine the parents wanting this, and also the kids measuring how well they are doing in life by this metric, since it would capture the difference between where they started out and where they've arrived.

Chetty and his coauthors take a look at this, using a wealth of "big data," for U.S. cohorts over the twentieth century and through the present.  They look at absolute, not relative, material wellbeing.  And they define that in terms of income at age thirty.  So the last cohort they look at compares people born in 1980 to their parents, based on how the former were doing in 2010.

An interesting thing about this set-up - because it focuses purely on absolute, not relative, attainment, it could come out at 100% in a society that featured no mobility whatsoever, if we think of mobility as meaning that some multi-generational households rise while others fall.  More on that in a moment.

They find that there has been a great reduction, in recent decades, in achievement of the American Dream as thus defined.  Given how people may tend to benchmark themselves versus their parents, it surely helps to explain the sour mood (to put it mildly) in U.S. politics these days.

Chetty et al also examine the question: What sorts of changes in economic performance would cause the "American Dream" measure of upward movement in absolute terms to start looking better? Suppose we had a policy tradeoff between (a) greater absolute growth and (b) less upwardly-skewed wealth distribution? Using reasonable parameters, would focusing more on growth, or more on distribution, have a more favorable effect with regard to this measure?

If ever the set-up to a research question seemed almost pre-selected to weigh in favor of maximizing growth, rather than taking distribution into account, it is this one.  After all, with zero growth one couldn't possibly have net upward movement from mere relative shifts.  And, with high overall growth, one would think it possible to get very high levels of universal gain even if the rank order were as rigidly fixed as in a feudal society.

But they come up with a surprising answer.  If you start with the level and pattern of GDP growth over the last three or four decades, and have a choice between either (a) ratcheting up the growth a bit, but with the same distributional pattern, and (b) evening out the distribution of gains, it turns out that (b) has significantly more favorable effects than (a) on the percentage of kids who end up out-stripping their parents.  This results from the fact, that in recent decades, nearly all of the real growth has been concentrated at the very top, with everyone else stagnating.

Who's stupid, and for that matter what's stupid (it's surprisingly hard to say)

David Frum on Twitter: “Basically the Trump administration is a giant prank on Trump voters.” For example, because Trump’s appointment for Secretary of Labor is “the most outspoken advocate of Bush-style immigration policy in [the] US business community,” and “[t]he Labor Department enforces immigration law in the workplace – the key way that immigration laws are enforced.” So the appointment puts a heavy thumb on the scales against targeting employment of illegal immigrants, despite Trump's directly opposite assurances to his voters throughout the campaign.

Meanwhile, Thomas Edsall in the NYT: Even though Trump can’t, won't, and won’t even try to, do anything about his voters’ economic complaints, they’re feeling elated about him to the degree that it may have measurable positive effects on their mental and physical health and wellbeing.  All that matters to them, at least so far, is the sense of emotional validation that comes from believing that he expressed their concerns and thereby won the election.

There is no reason why both can't be right, at least so long as the Trump voters don't figure out what is actually happening.  Ignorance is bliss. Or perhaps it's even simpler than that.  I'm genuinely glad, to this day, that the New York Mets won the 1969 and 1986 world championships.  This was independent of any sense that the Mets players were fighting for me, rather than for themselves - I just enjoyed having a rooting interest validated.

But if being conned and scammed - so far as actual policy outcomes are concerned - can leave one genuinely happier than one was before, so long as one manages to keep one's eyes tightly shut, the notion of rational self-interest in voting may need to be re-thought.

Album of the year?

Perhaps I haven't listened comprehensively enough to say, but I do check Pitchfork and Popmatters regularly, and, based on what I've taken the time at least to sample, I'd go with Mitski's Puberty 2.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Follow-up to Getting It?

A few years ago, I was thinking of writing a sequel to my novel, Getting It.  It would take place close to 30 years later (2010 or so, whereas Getting It is set in 1983), the only holdover character would be anti-hero Bill Doberman, and it most definitely would not follow the standard sequel formula of trying to do the same thing all over again.

After spending a short time on it one summer, I decided that I didn't have either the time or quite enough of an itch to do it. On the other hand, I think I did have a decent preliminary plan, albeit still only at a very general level.

While re-starting it seems as remote as ever (if not more so), here is the first part of the opening scene that I wrote in summer 2012:

Into the spartan, New-Agey corner law office of the aging but perennially hard-charging Bill Doberman, flunkies were wheeling a large video screen.  Doberman was awaiting a Skype call, regarding what he hoped would be a lucrative case from a prime new client.  Big billings would mean plenty of fresh meat for Doberman, although just carcass pickings for the rest of the partnership.  Tough luck for them, of course – but you negotiate your own bed, and then you must lie in it.

The call would be from Tom Thevis at Orkin, Miro, & Guelph, the big accounting firm, and would involve a confidential arbitration proceeding for consumer fraud.  Thevis wanted Doberman to take it over, apparently in midstream, perhaps because Doberman had recently won two similar cases for a different accounting firm while still in Washington.

The backstory was well-known.  OMG, like so many other accounting and law firms, had jumped off the deep end during the Enron era, including by selling tax shelters to well-heeled customers who ended up getting hammered by the IRS and were now quite unhappy about it.  Several OMG folk had gone to jail for tax fraud, and the firm reportedly had come close to being shut down like Arthur Andersen.  But now Phase 2, the customer lawsuits, was under way, and Thevis no doubt wanted to play hardball, as you always should when your hand is weak.

Doberman liked the atmosphere at accounting firms, which was one reason why he had never joined one.  Too many sharks spoil the broth.  Accounting firms were so much more entrepreneurial than law firms that Doberman felt a natural affinity with them.  But the problem was, as Arthur Andersen’s fate helped to show, you might have to worry too much about what was going on down the hall.  Law firms were stodgy, but if you were good at free agency you could nonetheless do quite well.  So here was Doberman, the consummate free agent, and now a newly minted New Yorker starting his second month at Bell, Ranger, and Bell, his fourth law firm – one step ahead of his currently unfolding plans to divorce his third wife.

He was just about to turn his mind back to the game plan for the Skype call when his secretary buzzed him on the intercom.  “There’s a young woman here to see you without an appointment.  She won’t tell me her name, but she says you’ll definitely want to see her.”


“Yes, she says now.”

“Janet, tell her I’m busy – I’m getting a call.  And besides, she really shouldn’t be coming to see me here.”

There was a moment’s pause, and Doberman thought that perhaps he’d better make sure who it was.

“This person, does she look about 25?  Long blond hair that’s pretty straight?”



“Yes, that’s her.”

“Tell her I’m busy, and I really can’t see her in the office.  She shouldn’t come here.  Wait a second, don’t say that.  If she wants a place to wait, tell her about the Starbucks in the lobby.  Say I might be able to come down.  But if I can’t, I’ll call her on her cellphone when I’m done.”

“Will do, but she doesn’t look happy.”

Doberman hung up.

Someone knocked on his door.  Before he could answer, Karen Soloveitchik pushed it open and showed her face, looking severe as always.  She hesitated for just a second before entering.  In her wake was a very junior associate who looked, well, awkward, and his hair was tangled.  Okay, Karen was allowed to barge in, but why bring a kid?

“Karen, I’m about to get a Skype call, but stay.  Don’t say anything; I’ll fill you in afterwards.  And who are you?”

He couldn’t have actually said Tim Mumbles, could he?  Although he did mumble.

“Come again?’

“Tim Mungle.”

“Great. Remember, total silence, and stay on the sofa, over to the side.”'

Just then a tone from Doberman’s computer screen announced that a Skype call was incoming.  With a click, he transferred it to the big video screen.  A large-jowled face appeared.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

High-end inequality colloquium, week 7

Yesterday we concluded our 7-week high-end inequality colloquium by discussing a very interesting work by Daniel Markovits, entitled "Meritocracy and Its Discontents."  The specific text we discussed, which relates to a book project, is not meant for circulation or even citation at this stage. So I will only comment briefly here on the issues that we discussed yesterday.

First, however, a quick word about the high-end inequality colloquium.  This 7-week sprint, with Robert Frank, our students, and others who became regular attendees and participants, was a great experience for me, although I don't when (or if) it will recur.  One of the things I've always enjoyed about the NYU Tax Policy Colloquium is that every week can be completely different from all the others.  It's a smorgasbord that shows how rich and varied the topics of potential interest are.  The high-end inequality colloquium, by contrast, had the advantages of focus and deepening.  We looked at common themes from a number of different but complementary angles, creating intellectual synergies and perhaps even progress for many of the participants (certainly including me).

The 7-week reading list was more focused on recent important things than on current work in progress, which might make it harder to repeat fruitfully.  Plus, in terms of my own teaching schedule, I think the Tax Policy Colloquium works better as an ongoing focus, and between that plus sabbatical and other teaching possibilities over the next few years, it seems unlikely that I, at least, would be participating in another version of this before fall 2019 (if ever).  Others at NYU or elsewhere might conceivably want to step in, which would be great, but that's outside my purview.

Returning to yesterday's session, it was the rare case where going for three hours, rather than the two that were all we had, would have been well worth it.  But because of the project's current state, I will only mention one aspect here.

There’s been a longstanding debate on whether the rise of high-end inequality over the last 3 decades, in the U.S. in particular, should mainly be viewed as inevitable or as chosen.

The inevitabilists emphasize such factors as globalization, declining communication costs that create gigantic winner-take-all markets, and skill-biased technology (taken as inherent to the current technological frontiers, even though technology in other eras was not skill-biased).

The choicists emphasize such deliberate policy moves (associated with Reagan and neoliberalism) as lowering of tax rates, deregulation, the destruction of unions, the strengthening of IP regimes, etcetera.

Suppose (as Daron Acemoglu’s work, may suggest) that skill-biased technology is itself a product of elite hyper-training that creates an exploitable resource – just as, in the late nineteenth century, the emergence of vast pools of unskilled labor drove technology in an anti-skill direction).  This might greatly undermine the ethical appeal of meritocracy, if one bases its claims (Greg Mankiw-style) on the assertion that today’s plutocrats are being justly rewarded for working hard and for being the “best” in a particular sense.

I myself don’t find Mankiw's normative stance at all compelling.  Thus, I would respond to it by asking, among other things, (a) are his beloved plutocrats producing social value commensurate with the private value they are extracting?, and (b) if and when they are, do we risk net social harm by undermining their incentives? My answers to these questions are (a) often no, and (b) yes at some point, but currently we're well short of that point.

So the question of why technology has been skill-biased recently, although important and interesting, lacks for me the predominant normative weight that Markovits is willing to contemplate its having.  Still, his book will be an important one.  I anticipate its both getting and deserving a lot of attention.

Another title change

Latest version of the title for my literature book is "Great (and Other) Books and the Rise of Toxic Meritocracy."

The parenthetical in the title reflects that some of the books I'll be discussing are definitely not great - although no less interesting for that.  E.g., Horatio Alger (Ragged Dick and/or Mark the Match Boy), Ayn Rand (either Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead).

Also, to be strictly accurate, not all of the works I'm discussing will be "books," or at least novels.  I'm planning to close with The Wolf of Wall Street - truly a prophetic preview of the 2016 election - and may also discuss, not only Death of a Salesman, but also It's a Wonderful Life.

At the risk of making the book too much the hostage of current events, I think the 2016 presidential election, if nothing else, gave me exactly the dramatic arc that I needed.  All clouds have a silver lining, I guess.

Monday, December 05, 2016

NYU Law School website link on high-end inequality

NYU Law School now has a link on ongoing work by members of the faculty, including me, on evaluating the issues around high-end inequality.  The link includes video of an interview I did, and there's also a link to the current draft of the opening chapter on my book in progress on literature and high-end inequality.

The book's tentative title used to be "Enviers, Rentiers, Arrivistes, and the Point-One Percent: What Literature Can Tell Us About High-End Inequality."  With an eye to being less wholly uncommercial, the link reveals that I had changed the working title to "The March to Toxic Meritocracy: Literature and the Changing Nature of High-End Inequality."  I have since tentatively changed it again to "Great Books and the Rise of Toxic Meritocracy."

Saturday, December 03, 2016


At the risk of belaboring the obvious, suppose that Trump had won the popular vote by 2.5 million, but that Clinton had won the Electoral College via narrow wins in several battleground states.  This alone would have produced a huge, coordinated national movement, from Republican elites plus mass rallies, demanding that the Electoral College accept the popular verdict.  (Such a campaign was actually planned by Rove in 2000, in the event that Bush won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote.)

Then suppose the Clinton campaign had opposed recounts in the close states.  At this point, the rhetorical (and possibly actual) violence would have been astounding.

This asymmetry is a puzzling but regular feature of U.S. politics.  It's not just about Trump.  Imagine the parties in office being reversed when (a) 9/11 happened (especially if the president had brushed off intelligence briefings about the threat), (b) the 2008 financial crisis arose, (c) the economy recovered 2012-2016 (Romney claimed that a smaller recovery would prove his policies were correct), or (d) Benghazi happened (note that not just 9/11 but the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing were far bigger deals, each with highly plausible theories of executive fecklessness in the run-up).

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

High-end inequality colloquium at NYU, week 6: Morse & Bertrand, Trickle-Down Consumption

This past Monday, Adair Morse of Berkeley presented her paper (coauthored with Marianne Bertrand of U Chicago), Trickle-Down Consumption.

The paper is a nice, compressed job of empirical research, published recently but of particular interest to us given its relationship to my co-convenor Robert Frank's interest in expenditure cascades, whereby rises in market consumption at the top triggers attempts to keep up via increased consumption just below, then again just below that, and then continuing until it has radiated far down the distributional chain.

The two main explanations for the Frank story are (1) positional externalities, whereby my having a bigger house requires you to get a bigger one, too, just to restore our relative positions to what they were before, and (2) context, whereby my bigger house simply triggers you (without necessarily having competitive motives) to need a larger house in order to feel that yours is big enough.  These two views are closely related and can be hard to tell apart, although (2) is framed in such a way as to sidestep criticisms to the effect that one should not give social weight to "envy" (a criticism that I consider wide of the mark in any event).

In the Bertrand-Frank study, state-level data suggests that, when the consumption of the top 20% in the income distribution in a state increases, those in the bottom 80% start consuming more even if their current and expected future income are flat.  Hence, their savings rates fall and they experience increased rates of bankruptcy and financial distress.

With respect to types of consumption, the effect is not greater for what seem to be positional or status goods than for other types of consumer outlays.  This might tend to rebut viewing the issue as status competition via positional goods, although how it affects the context view is less clear.

Based on meticulously testing various alternative explanations, the authors suggest that the methodology might involve a rise in well-off consumers in a neighborhood triggering an increase in appealing high-end goods and services that the others then start consuming without due regard for their budget constraints.  (But they manage to rule out mere price level changes for the same goods.)

To me, this seems to invite (as a plausible explanation) what I call the chocolate chip cookie or temptation problem.  When there are more nice things around, I tend to buy them, just as I might gobble chocolate chip cookies left on the seminar table. [I actually don't do that these days, but never mind that.]  So I'm inclined to view it as an internalities problem, in which consumers who are tempted by what might actually be nice things (from which they do indeed derive utility) get themselves into worse spots overall.

It's not as obvious why a preference for positional goods or the influence of context on consumer choice would necessarily involve irrationality.  But Bob Frank, in terms that he once nicely explained in an NYT column, invoked the work of James Duesenberry, a Harvard economist whose model for how people make consumption choices dominated the economics field & textbooks, because it nicely explained actual observed behavior, until Milton Friedman's permanent income hypothesis wholly supplanted it.  To paraphrase the old joke, Duesenberry's account worked in practice but not in theory, whereas Friedman's worked in theory but not in practice, so the economics profession unanimously voted for Friedman.

Friedman views people as rationally and farsightedly allocating consumption opportunities across their lifespans in order to equalize its marginal utility in all periods, as judged when one decides, and hence one's total lifetime utility.  (If bequests are added to the picture, a common move is to model the multigenerational household as if it were a single infinite-lived individual.)  But he can't readily or convincingly explain, e.g., why rich people generally save higher percentages of their incomes than poor people.  A smoothing rationale alone, for example, might tend to apply equally to each.

Friedman also had trouble explaining the fact that, as societies grow richer, their savings rates generally don't increase.  But, to quote Frank's NYT column:

"Mr. Duesenberry's explanation of the discrepancy is that poverty is relative. The poor save at lower rates, he argued, because the higher spending of others kindles aspirations they find difficult to meet. This difficulty persists no matter how much national income grows, and hence the failure of national savings rates to rise over time.

"To explain the short-run rigidity of consumption, Mr. Duesenberry argued that families look not only to the living standards of others, but also to their own past experience. The high standard enjoyed by a formerly prosperous family thus constitutes a frame of reference that makes cutbacks difficult, which helps explain why consumption levels change little during recessions.

"Despite Mr. Duesenberry's apparent success, many economists felt uncomfortable with his relative-income hypothesis, which to them seemed more like sociology or psychology than economics. The profession was therefore immediately receptive to alternative theories that sidestepped those disciplines."

Whence the shift by universal acclaim to Friedman's model, even though it was psychologically less realistic and also a worse fit with the key data points noted above.

This phenomenon has much in common with what I say about public economics and optimal income tax theory in my recent U Miami Law Review article on the "mapmaker's dilemma."  I too call there for more sociology, and less exclusive reliance on rational choice-based economic models.

In any event, once one adds the Duesenberry view to the positional and context models, they can join the temptation / chocolate chip cookies model in positing that a rise in high-end consumption may trigger planning failures that we might describe as involving internalities from people in lower income tiers.  This might be viewed either as further ground for deeming high-end inequality injurious to those below, or else simply as providing support for the use of policy instruments that focus on increasing private saving where it appears to be suboptimal, and/or on addressing the misuse of consumer credit.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Music for car trips

Being now newly technologically equipped to play Spotify via my phone through a car stereo, my musical options on long trips are now broader, or at least more flexible and less in need of advance planning, than they used to be.

Thanksgiving-related and other driving the last few days offered an occasion to play through Fiona Apple's 3 classic albums (I'm not counting her first one, Tidal, as at that point she hadn't really found her voice yet).  Then there was time for one more, by Mark Mulcahy, the former frontman of Miracle Legion who recently reemerged after an 8-year hiatus that apparently was triggered by a family tragedy.

The Mulcahy album is really good - witty, clever, literate, tuneful, sharp, catchy, etcetera.  But playing it right after a Fiona Apple-fest doesn't show it off to best advantage, because it's a bit like taking a scenic trolley right after a rollercoaster ride that was loaded with free falls and loop-the-loops.  Against that background, even very good songs can sound too contained by their conventions and form, whereas Fiona Apple's songs, even though she's a classicist who does all the standard things (verse, chorus, build to the climax, etc.) sound like they are trying to fight free of any such constraints.

Monday, November 21, 2016

High-end inequality colloquium at NYU: My "mapmakers dilemma" paper

Today at NYU Law School, at session 5 (out of 7) at our Colloquium on High-End Inequality, I presented my paper, The Mapmaker's Dilemma in Evaluating High-End inequality.  The version we discussed at the session is available here.  As noted in prior posts, an alternative version, longer by about 20 pages since I discuss at length the Diamond-Saez optimal income tax work that proposes a 70 percent top marginal income tax rate, was just published by the University of Miami Law Review, and is available here.

I don't usually discuss my own work at my colloquia these days, because I learn more from discussing other people's work, but I thought it made more sense to do this here.  Since I and my co-convenor comment on other people's papers, I thought it was only fair play to have an outside commentator comment on this one, and my colleague Liam Murphy ably filled the role, discussing broader philosophical issues that I touch on in the piece but don't really try to resolve.

It's a bit of an odd piece, I feel, although I do mainly like it these days.  The thing is, rather than trying to resolve or take a firm stance on most of the issues it raises, the aim is simply to show that we need a broader discussion of the issues around high-end inequality than standard economic analysis (and the optimal income tax or OIT literature in its most common form) really are prepared to handle.  But the aim in a way is simply to open the door for complementing not only OIT with other hard social science, but also hard social science with the soft social sciences, such as sociological and psychological inputs on how high-end inequality affects people's sense of wellbeing (and how that concept of wellbeing should be conceptualized to begin with).  These inputs presumptively include my focus on literature, without there being any claim on my part that that is one of the most important pieces of the puzzle from a narrowly answers-related framework.

So the piece starts a lot of hares without trying to run them to ground (so to speak).  And also, as I noted in an earlier post, I am no longer planning to use it in my inequality and literature book, except for a couple of the best bits (relating to the Gini coefficient and to the "mapmaker's dilemma" itself) that I have imported into the literature book's chapter 1.  So while it used to be chapter 2, now it's just a freestanding law review article.  What a comedown, eh?

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Sitting by the dock of the bay

OK, I’m actually not exactly sitting by the dock of the bay, but I am fairly close to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Yesterday I gave a talk at the University of San Francisco Law School concerning U.S. international tax policy, generally in light of my 2014 book on the subject, Fixing U.S. International Taxation.  My aim in the talk, as often, was to work on several levels at once, the idea being to combine comprehensibility to students who are new to the field with having something interesting to say for the experts who were also in the room.  Today I’m staying in San Francisco for an extra day – it’s odd how rarely I’ve been in SF, although a frequent traveler to the Bay Area (I used to have extensive family in Berkeley) – and hoping it doesn’t rain. 

I’ve been thinking for some time that I should write a second edition of Fixing.  I had two reasons, but maybe now there are four.  Reason 1 is that I have an altered and perhaps clearer sense of how to make many of the book’s main points.  (Also, some of my main targets in it, such as the CEN / CIN / CON welfare norms, appear to me to have receded to the point that focusing on them is now less necessary.)

Reason 2 is that a lot has happened internationally since I wrote the book.  I finished the manuscript at a point when OECD-BEPS was just starting.

Reason 3 is that I’m teaching U.S. international tax law for the second straight year, whereas I hadn’t taught it for several years before writing the book.  Without getting too deep into the weeds in a general policy book, there’s a lot of interesting detail that I could use in discussing the various tradeoffs and ambiguities that dot the field.

Reason 4 is that it’s possible U.S. international tax law will change significantly on the ground next year.

But first I have a long way to go on my book on literature and high-end inequality.  Major progress in the last two days, I think, towards nailing down my chapter on E.M. Forster’s Howards End.   But on the other hand it’s trickier than it usually is for my books to figure out exactly what the market is and how best to reach it.  I do think there’s something potentially there.  But judging quality in a project of this sort is so much more subjective than in the things I am more used to.

A big step forward, I think was deciding to eliminate from the book 90+% of the material that appeared in my University of Miami Law Review article from last week, The Mapmaker’s Dilemma in Assessing High-End Inequality.

I like the piece OK, and will be discussing a shortened version of it (minus the in-depth discussion of the optimal income tax literature, Diamond-Saez, etc.) this coming Monday at my high-end inequality colloquium.  But probably too little readership overlap between the details of that sort of academic trawl and my literature chapters.

I've resumed my boycott of U.S. political news, simply because in light of the great risks our country faces I find it too upsetting these days.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

High-end inequality colloquium, week 4: Alan Viard

Yesterday at the Colloquium on High-End Inequality, Alan Viard from the American Enterprise Institute discussed portions of his recent book (with Robert Carroll), Progressive Consumption Taxation: The X-TaxRevisited.

Here are summaries of my thoughts regarding the first two topics that I aimed to discuss.  As it happened, we never got to Topic 2 (which shows that we had plenty to talk about).

1.         For / against the progressive consumption tax
My two colleagues in leading the colloquium discussion both support shifting from the existing income tax to a progressive consumption tax – but for very different reasons! I had been thinking that their reasons for supporting it were wholly inconsistent – but upon reflection (and discussion) have concluded that they are instead merely entirely distinct, and potentially complementary.

Alan Viard: He starts from assuming that we need a general revenue system founded on ability to pay, and that this might be either an income tax or a consumption tax. Both burden work, but income taxation also burdens future consumption relative to current consumption. It thereby inefficiently deters saving.  Plus, in practice enormous complexity (and undermining of objectives) results from the full playout of the realization requirement.

In evaluating a consumption tax, Viard emphasizes that, in principal, deferral of the tax (via saving instead of immediately consuming) does not reduce the expected liability in present value, so long as tax rates are constant.

To illustrate, say we have a flat 30% (tax-exclusive) consumption tax that will remain in place indefinitely.  Adam and Barbara each consume $100K this year, so each pays $30K of current-year consumption tax,   But Adam also has $100M of savings (Barbara has none).

A current-year-focused income tax advocate might ask: How can it be fair to charge both of them the same tax, when Barbara’s ability to pay is so much greater?  But a consumption tax advocate might respond: Adam would have paid an additional $30M of tax if he had consumed all his savings this year.  But by not doing so, he merely deferred it at the market interest rate, whatever that might be.  Thus, the present value of the tax on this wealth is $30M whether he saves it for a year, a century, or a millennium. So the consumption tax does require him to pay more, as it should based on ability-to-pay – one simply needs a longer time frame to make the appropriate comparison.  All we need to assume, to reach this conclusion, is a constant tax rate and realization at some point – or that indefinite deferral is effectively no better than realization at some point.

An income tax is likely to be more progressive than a consumption tax if they have the same rate structure, because higher-income individuals generally save a higher percentage of their resources than poorer individuals.  But we can replace the lost progressivity from changing the tax base from income tax to consumption by making the new tax rates nominally higher and more progressive.

Again, all this is what I take to be the Viard view (although I agree with most of it); now on to the Robert Frank view.

Robert Frank: He questions the need for an ability-to-pay tax until we’ve exhausted all taxes on negative externalities.  For example, we might meet at least a portion of our revenue needs by properly taxing pollution, carbon, congestion, etc.

But the taxes on negative externalities that Frank favors include a luxury tax for the high-end.  The aim here is to address expenditure cascades, addressed in this paper, which we discussed at the High-End Inequality Colloquium on October 28.

In effect, he wants a high-end luxury tax, on the same grounds as pollution or congestion taxes.  But since it’s a hopeless task to try to figure out all the items that ought to be on the luxury tax list, he proposes instead to start levying the tax at very high annual consumption levels.

This might even be an add-on to the current income tax, although it also could come out of a personal expenditure tax (PET) – i.e., an individual-level progressive consumption tax.  The very high rates just at the top would presumably require thinking about multi-year inclusion of consumer durables such as a home, and one might also debate whether averaging should be allowed.

Could a general consumption tax at lower rate brackets be justified on externality grounds, rather than just under ability to pay principles?  For Frank, the answer is potentially yes, but this would require a separate critique of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses style lateral positional wars via consumption.

Frank also posits that the luxury tax wouldn’t greatly reduce high-end labor supply, and does not posit adverse effects from unequal wealth-holding.  His target is unequal current consumption, based on the analysis of expenditure cascades from the top on down.

My comments & concerns:
1) Bob Frank posits negative externalities from high-end inequality solely via the consumption pathway.  But what if there are also negative externalities from high-end wealth-holding?  Suppose that Wilkinson-Pickett adverse effects on health and on social gradient ills were found to be increased by wealth inequality alone, even controlling for current consumption levels.

2) As a matter of political economy, will progressive consumption tax rates (whether under the Bradford X-tax or the PET) be high enough? The political process sometimes over-focuses on marginal rates, without regard to the tax base or actual effective rates.

3) Is savings, reached by the income tax but not the consumption tax, a tag of ability?  If so, then under standard optimal income tax theory, including it in the tax base can improve the available tradeoff between distributional gain and efficiency loss.  

4) On more of a technical point, is the personal expenditure tax (PET) more administratively friendly to highish rates than the  X-tax?

2.         Inheritance
The conventional wisdom holds that, if you favor consumption taxation, then logically it’s at least against the grain to favor estate and gift and/or inheritance taxation.  But I disagree.

The above logic is inescapable if one thinks of multi-generational family dynasties as if they were extremely long-lived individuals.  But they aren’t – parent and child, bequestor and bequestee, are not in fact the same person.

Henry Simons famously argued for double-taxing gifts and bequests.  No deduction to the donor, full inclusion for the done (leaving aside administrative arguments re. small items, and perhaps set of internal transactions within a household). 

This was an argument about consumption, not income.  And whether or not one buys his result, the logic of saying it triggered consumption by both was clearly correct.  If I make a gift, including an altruistically minded bequest, then clearly I get utility from it, no less than if I had instead spent my $$ on vacation travel or a restaurant.  (Accidental bequests are different, but there it’s efficient to tax them if we posit that they were precautionary saving, but the owner had no bequest motive and ended up not needing them precautionarily.)

So as a matter of judging individual welfare in ability-to-pay terms, if I give a $1M gift to my kids, this is $1M worth of consumption by me and by them.  Double-taxing it would merely match the fact that there was double consumption.

Why wouldn’t we want to adopt the Simons solution?  Not because it is logically wrong in defining ability to pay – but rather because we don’t like the policy outcome.  As the literature discusses, there is an “altruistic externality” here.  I valued my enjoyment of the kids’ consumption at $1M, but I didn’t value their enjoyment at a separate $1M.  By contrast, if I bought a standard consumption item for $1M the total welfare gained would be just $1M.

This suggests tax-favoring gifts and bequests for policy reasons, relative to the Simons baseline.  Taxing them “just once” is a salient, prominent, intuitive, and relatively simple way of getting to this result, but it doesn’t inherently get the incentive exactly right.

Now suppose we are worried about unequal wealth-holding when there is extreme high-end inequality.  One might consider addressing this through a wealth tax, but one is in the ballpark if one does this periodically, such as by targeting gifts and bequests. So now, where there’s impact on high-end inequality, we might want to move towards taxing gifts and bequests less favorably than under the “tax it once” baseline.

True, in that scenario it’s really just a mechanism for a periodic wealth tax, with the tax on gifts needing to accompany that on bequests so it can’t be avoided via transfers to younger or healthier individuals.  Basing it on gifts and bequests as such would merely be opportunistic.  But now suppose that one’s high-end inequality concerns are triggered by dynastic wealth transmission, unequal opportunities in life, etc.  Then the gratuitous transfer, not the wealth-holding, might indeed be worthy of direct focus.

My point here is not to sketch out the policy upshot, but just to suggest that (a) there is really no logical tension between favoring enactment of a progressive consumption tax to replace the income tax, and wanting to tax gifts and bequests, plus (b) if one is uneasy about the prospects for a progressive consumption tax to be progressive enough, a tax on gifts and bequests may help to address that problem.

Ground worth thinking about in some hypothetical future, e.g., if the incoming Administration moves things in one direction distributionally, but subsequent Administrations want to move in a different direction.

New article published, discussing high-end inequality

My article, The Mapmaker’s Dilemma in Evaluating High-End Inequality, has just been published by the University of Miami Law Review. The official cite is 71 University of Miami Law Review 83-159 (2016), and it’s available here.
The abstract goes as follows:

“The last thirty years have witnessed rising income and wealth concentration among the top 0.1% of the population, leading to intense political debate regarding how, if at all, policymakers should respond. Often, this debate emphasizes the tools of public economics, and in particular optimal income taxation. However, while these tools can help us in evaluating the issues raised by high-end inequality, their extreme reductionism—which, in other settings, often offers significant analytic payoffs—here proves to have serious drawbacks. This Article addresses what we do and don’t learn from the optimal income tax literature regarding high-end inequality, and what other inputs might be needed to help one evaluate the relevant issues.

The piece was adapted from what used to be chapter 2 of my book-in-progress, Enviers, Rentiers, Arrivistes, and the Point-One Percent: What Literature Can Tell Us About High-End Inequality, In effect, it serves to explain why one might want to look at contemporary literature in this regard, rather than confining oneself to tools from public economics and other “hard” social sciences.  But as it happens, I have decided not to include almost any of the material from this chapter in the book.  Instead, material from maybe 3 to 5 pages of it has been adapted to fit into the book’s chapter 1, and the book then goes straight to the fun stuff, starting with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in what is now chapter 2.  Ensuing chapters that I have written to this point address Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir, Balzac’s Pere Goriot, Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, and (albeit only about half-done) Forster’s Howards End.  The chapter after that will cross the Great Pond and look at Horatio Alger (to be followed by Dreiser’s The Financier and/or The Titan and then Wharton’s House of Mirth).

Saturday, November 12, 2016


It probably comes as no surprise to readers of this blog to learn that I was not pleased, to put it mildly, by Tuesday's election results.

We all have to deal in our own particular ways with things that upset us.  Mine include resolving greatly to lessen the amount of attention that I pay to U.S. politics, at least for an interim period of time.  This is a period of great uncertainty anyway, and I am hoping that we will land within the less crazy, rather than the more crazy, range of possible scenarios.  But I don't view it as personally constructive to spend my time, as all this gets worked out, agonizing about things that I can't affect anyway, rather than going on with my life.

I am hoping not everyone will do this, but we all have different roles to play, and different personal and family needs to address.

I will pay attention to tax proposals that emerge from the new administration.  While I am bound to dislike both the distributional and budgetary effects of these proposals, it's not impossible that they will actually have structural or design virtues.  In particular, international and business taxation could be made either better or worse as a matter of basic structure and design.  We will see.

Meanwhile, I'm going on with things that interest me and/or which I can do something about.  I've had a quite enjoyable time at the National Tax Association annual meeting in Baltimore, especially socially (seeing colleagues and friends) and I may blog about the conference later today when I'm on the train back to NYC.   An article of mine that, in my final page proof read, I actually quite liked (although my reactions to rereading my own work can vary)  is going to be published and posted online by the University of Miami Law Review, perhaps as soon as today.  More on that when it happens.  It discusses high-end inequality, clearly a topic of continuing interest.  And I've made great strides, I think, in improving the structure and flow of the early portions of my book-in-progress on literature and high-end inequality.

Candide in his garden?  Perhaps.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Just a metaphor, I hope

This is what (or rather whom) I feel like today. Seen in a seafood delivery truck, right next to a local seafood restaurant.

Dealing with it

Playful version of a song about sorrow.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

High-end inequality colloquium, week 3, Ilyana Kuziemko

Yesterday Ilyana Kuziemko came by to discuss her co-authored paper, Support for Redistribution in an Age of Rising Inequality. As background, here is the paper's abstract:

"Despite the large increases in economic inequality since 1970, American survey respondents exhibit no increase in support for redistribution, in contrast to the predictions from standard theories of redistributive preferences. We replicate these results but further demonstrate substantial heterogeneity by demographic groups. In particular, the two groups who have most moved against income redistribution are the elderly and African-Americans, two groups relatively more reliant on it. We find little evidence that these subgroup trends are explained by relative economic gains or growing cultural conservatism, two common explanations. We further show that the elderly trend is uniquely American, at least relative to other developed countries with comparable survey data. One story consistent with the data on elderly trends is that they worry that redistribution will come at their expense, in particular via cuts to Medicare. We find that the elderly have grown increasingly opposed to government provision of health insurance and that controlling for this tendency explains roughly half of their declining relative support of redistribution. For blacks, controlling for their declining support of race-targeted aid explains a large portion of their differential decline in redistributive preferences (raising the question of why support for race-targeted aid has fallen during a period when black income catch-up to whites has stalled)."

These are interesting and credible findings. Herewith an expanded version of my thoughts regarding the paper:

Two discussion topics.  First, as per the paper, why didn’t rising U.S. inequality from 1978-2006 prompt an increased demand for redistribution?  Second, what are the lessons learned regarding the future?

1.         Why no increased demand for redistribution?
a) Is there a paradox?
The paper notes that, under the “workhorse political economy model” in which voters simply follow their own narrow economic self-interest, it would be paradoxical to find that rising inequality didn’t trigger increased support for redistribution.  The model – which, happily, the authors, no less than I, regard as a useful strawman rather than something that is actually credible – posits that each voter’s support or opposition for addressing income inequality is simply a function of mean income minus own income, as this would determine whether symmetrically compressing income inequality would yield one a gain or a loss.

This is not a convincing model for numerous reasons.  Let’s even posit that people didn’t care about anything other than the effect on own income under the above setup.  The model would still founder on the paradox of voting – i.e., the fact that, since I cannot have any statistically significant effect on the outcome, my voting (and even informing myself about the economic stakes to me) are a total waste of time when modeled in such a framework.  People “shouldn’t” vote, and if rational “wouldn’t” vote, unless something else was going on.

(As an aside, I spent close to an hour at the polling place this morning.  Suppose that I disvalue a Trump victory at $1 billion – if I had no conscience, I might in a sci fi hypothetical accept that much from the gods, after-tax, in exchange for his winning –  and that I very generously rate the chance that my vote will affect the outcome at 1/500 million.  Then my behavior would suggest that I value my time at only $2/hour, surely below how I usually treat it.

What’s a better basic account of how voters generally make choices?  I rather like this quote from the newly published Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, Democracy for Realists:  

“[M]ost residents of democratic countries have little interest in politics and do not follow news of public affairs beyond browsing the headlines. They do not know the details of even salient policy debates, they do not have a firm understanding of what the political parties stand for, and they often vote for parties whose longstanding issue positions are at odds with their own.  Mostly, they identify with ethnic, racial, occupational, or other sorts of groups and often – whether through group ties or hereditary loyalties – with a political party. Even the more attentive citizens mostly adopt the political positions of the parties as their own: they are mirrors of the parties, not masters. For most citizens most of the time, party and group loyalty are the primary drivers of vote choices.”

Unfortunately for purposes of explaining how rising inequality might be expected to affect voters’ political preferences regarding policies to address it, this leaves us with something of a black box.  On Election Day 2016, for example, we are seeing identity issues more than usually cashed out in straightforward terms of race and ethnicity.

b) High-end inequality vs. low-end inequality
The Kuziemko paper, reflecting the data (in the form of survey questions) on which it must rely, does not tease apart high-end and low-end inequality.  Yet I feel this issue is central to people’s attitudes, wholly apart from my arguing that the issues posed are analytically quite distinct.

“Inequality” is an abstraction.  Suppose I am in between the 20th and 99th percentile, whether ranked by income or wealth, and thus regard myself as “middle-class.”  What I mean by this is that I see people above me and people below me, so – aggregate statistics be damned – I place myself in the middle.  I may think something about the “rich,” and something about the “poor.”  But these are two different groups to me, and I may have particular sentiments about each.

The big rise in inequality in the U.S. since the mid-1970s has been concentrated on the high-end.  So survey questions that emphasize the low end certainly run the risk of missing respondents’ feelings about the piece that has actually moved a lot.

Consider 2 questions from the surveys that the paper analyzes.  First, what I’ll call “Question 1,” which shows up in the paper’s Figure 2:

“Some people think that the government in Washington ought to reduce the income differences between the rich and the poor, perhaps by raising the taxes of wealthy families or by giving income assistance to the poor. Others think that the government should not concern itself with reducing this income difference between the rich and the poor.” [Respondents then pick a number between 1 and 7 to reflect where they fall on the spectrum between these 2 view.]

While this question is a bit of mishmash, it does notably discuss BOTH the rich and the poor.  Kuziemko et al find little to no change in sentiment as between the polar choices in the period from 1978-2006

Then there’s “Question 2,” which shows up in the paper’s Figure 3:

“Some people think that the government in Washington should do everything possible to improve the standard of living of all poor Americans....Other people think it is not the government’s responsibility, and that each person should take care of himself.”  Once again, people are asked to locate themselves along a spectrum.

Here we find a significant decrease in pro-redistributive sentiment from 1978-2006, despite rising inequality during this period.  Why the difference between this and the flat, no-change finding for Question 1?

Unfortunately, this is not a clean comparison given the two questions’ multiple moving parts – e.g., what the government should concern itself with in Question 1, versus the role of individual responsibility in Question 2.  But the differences include mentioning both the rich and the poor in Question 1, and just the poor in Question 2.  So it’s consistent with positing, or at least speculating, that increased concern about the rich, which only Question 1 evoked, might have offset reduced concern about the poor so as to keep the overall trend in Question 1 flat rather than negative.

c) American exceptionalism
Here as so often, we have a paper dealing with American exceptionalism.  The paper’s headline finding is that US seniors have moved sharply against redistribution during this period.  Might it be a byproduct of their rising life expectancies?  The paper says no, because seniors in peer countries have not so moved despite having similar life expectancy increases.  The paper suggests that “Medicare threat” is the answer to the riddle.  U.S. seniors are worried that increased redistribution to younger Americans will come at THEIR expense, via Medicare cuts.  In effect, they’ve already got theirs, so it’s time to kick away the ladder that lifted them to safety, and make sure that others cannot benefit as they have.

To anyone who has followed, say, “Obamacare” politics from 2009 through to the present (although this falls outside the period that the paper surveys), this is wholly  plausible and credible.  We do indeed have a unique structure for government-funded healthcare that we have observed affecting seniors’ political sentiments in this way. 

But there are also other ways in which the US is unique. For example, as my colleague David Garland’s book regarding the death penalty points out, in many way the U.S. looked a lot more like Western Europe 50 years ago than it does today, and we have diverged in multiple dimensions, partly because our political elite (pre-Trumpism) split into liberal and conservative wings.  We have a far less generous social safety net, we’ve retained the death penalty, religion plays a larger role in politics than in many peer countries, libertarian and pro-market ideology are stronger here, we have racial and ethnic issues that predate contemporary immigration issues, etcetera.  So it might be interesting also to evaluate other possible explanations for American exceptionalism here.

d) Seniors
Again, the “Medicare threat” explanation for seniors’ rising hostility to redistribution in the US makes a lot of sense.  I also note that it would not be entirely irrational for seniors to be concerned that opening up the budget more to help younger people would potentially crowd out expenditures on their behalf, especially with rising healthcare costs that help put Medicare on at least the long-run chopping block.

But just how rational is it?  (And again, recall that voters generally are not “rationally self-interested” as the “workhorse political economy model” irrationally posits, because it’s not worth the effort to figure out where one’s interest lies, given the voting paradox.)  And what about another threat that they have chosen to ignore?  This is the clear fact that the anti-redistributive Republicans to whom they have rushed as a voting bloc actually thirst to sharply cut both Medicare and Social Security – whereas the (relatively) pro-redistributive Democrats whom they now shun are eager to protect both programs.

True, Republicans in the Paul Ryan vein have not only tried to soft-pedal their Social Security and Medicare retrenchment plans, but also have promised that any changes would only affect younger age cohorts.  But then again, mightn’t the same thing be true of Obamacare expansions et al, especially since the Democrats like Social Security and Medicare and thus don’t want to cut them?

My point here is not that the seniors “ought” to support the Democrats, rather than the Republicans, on all this.  There are arguments of group self-interest that go both ways.  Rather, my point is that it’s plausible that they have made their choice based on group identity.  Today’s seniors may well be a group that looks younger Americans who might get government aid as different from themselves – in particular, as less white.  In short, our demographic transition from a white-dominated to a diverse multi-ethnic society may have particularly strong effects on current seniors who can see the transition happening.

So is it about group identity after all?  More on this question under Topic 2.

e) African-Americans
The paper finds that, while African-Americans are still more pro-redistributive than the overall population average, they have moved towards the average (and away from being ideological outliers) during the period from 1978-2006 – this despite lagging economic catchup with whites.  I wonder if this might have something to do with the demographic shift, which I gather William Julius Wilson and others have written about, under which middle-class and upper-middle-class African-Americans increasingly live in neighborhoods (e.g., in the suburbs) that were previously restricted to whites, but among whom these individuals can now find economic peers.

2.         Lessons learned
Here are some thoughts about what the paper’s analysis might suggest, looking back a bit and maybe forward.

a) Was Medicare a political fiasco for progressives?
Medicare proponents in 1965 were motivated in large part by the thought: Seniors first.  They wanted comprehensive national healthcare like that in peer countries, but decided to start with the politically easy part.  But then, rather than this being the leading wedge for a broader change, it turned into a game of “pull up the ladder,” with seniors organizing to ensure that no one else could get what they have.

Medicare’s deliberately adopted optics may have worsened the problem.  It’s structured to create an impression that one is paying for one’s own benefits, via the payroll taxes one pays up front and then the annual premium for Medicare Part B.  But of course it results in huge net transfers to current seniors who, in many cases, deny that it is even a government program.  So from a progressive standpoint the whole thing appears to have backfired to a degree.

b) Cognitive dissonance looking forward
The paper evaluates but rejects a cognitive dissonance hypothesis, under which, if one becomes (say) more conservative on Issue 1, one will seek to restore consistency (defined by political alliances) by also becoming more conservative on Issue 2.  So, if one moved to the right by reason of opposition to gay rights, one might then adopt one’s new bedfellows’ (so to speak) on tax progressivity as well.  The paper finds, however, that such an explanation does not account for the shift against favoring progressivity (such as among seniors) in the data set.

Might it work the other way going forward?  Suppose future seniors dislike the conservative positions on so-called social issues?  Might this influence them to adopt more progressive positions on distributional issues as well?  Obviously we don’t know, but let’s know consider the same question phrased more generally.

 c) Seniors: life cycle effects vs. age cohort effects
As the authors recognize, it’s hard in their data set to tell apart life cycle effects and age cohort effects.  The former are at work if, say, once one reaches retirement age one starts to see public policy through the lens of “Medicare threat” to one’s own benefits.  The latter are at work if, say, people who grew up under Johnson & Nixon differ from those who grew up under Reagan, who differ in turn from those who grew up under Bill Clinton, and so on moving forward.  (I use the presidents’ name to evoke the particular times, whether or not this mainly depended on their particular political adventures.)

If one were to posit the hope (or fear, depending on one’s political preferences) that seniors going forward will not be as anti-redistributive as the current cohort, even if the structural issues around Medicare remain the same, one might base that judgment on the possibility that America’s racial and ethnic transition, from white-dominated to genuinely multi-ethnic, is playing a central role.  Is it crucial to today’s seniors that they see younger age cohorts as different from themselves, given the ongoing transition, but that this perception once the transition has passed a critical stage?  As the favored cliché of news features would have it, Only Time Will Tell.

d) African-Americans
Again, the paper finds that they remain more progressive than the median voter, but have moved closer to the median position.  One question might be: How is this likely to affect political outcomes?  Under a median voter model – although admittedly this old warhorse, no less than the workhorse political economy model of narrowly conceived economic self-interest, has lost ground in recent years – it actually might not matter a whole lot.  Obviously, however, not a question that this particular paper aims to address.

e) Relevance (or not) of voter sentiments
More generally, while this is outside the paper’s scope, one should keep in mind that it is far from clear that general voter sentiments regarding redistribution have any discernible effect on policy outcomes.  Martin Gilens, for example, finds that the sentiments of the bottom 99% generally have negligible effects on policy outcomes.  While this would not eliminate one’s interest in better understanding the link (if any) between distributional changes in the economy and public political sentiments, it would indicate that the grounds for interest are mainly sociological and based on the value of knowledge for its own sake (not as an input into making political forecasts).