Do I Deserve What I Have? Part III

“doesn’t the logic of part I — the acceptance that my standard of living is in some fundamental way unearned — justify what I will call Gentle Socialism — a dramatically larger redistributive effort than what we currently have in America? Shouldn’t the top rate of income tax be at least 70%? Isn’t a wealth tax of 2% or more, a good idea? Shouldn’t we consider a maximum level of income, say $1 million or maybe $10 million and have a tax rate of 100% of everything above that cap? Any of these proposals would go beyond Sweden say, and take us closer to something more egalitarian.”

“Some people seem to confuse material well-being with money. If you’re not careful, you might come to think that there’s a fixed amount of money in the world and the rich have a disproportionate share of it. Justice means simply reorganizing who has that money. This is the world of zero-sum economics. It is not the real world or at least not the one with real-world consequences.”

“While wealthy people may have a fairly large amount of cash on hand, most of their wealth is usually in the form of assets. Wealth is a result of investment in assets, the result of people spending less than they receive in income and the using the difference to buy shares of companies or to lend out money in return for interest. Those investments create capital — it’s what fuels innovation. Capital assets are expected to yield benefits in the future. So an investor is giving up consumption today for more consumption tomorrow — the return or their foregoing of consumption.

Capital makes workers more productive. Innovation makes our lives better. Not just the people who funded the innovations who often earn large returns for taking risks, but the people who enjoy the products and the workers who use the machines that make those workers more productive. If everyone has no more than an ox and a plow and has to farm to stay alive, no one is rich. And every once in a while, the rains don’t come and some people starve. Investment and innovation lets a lot of people get rich. Once someone invents a grain combine and the other tools of modern farming, you get a lot more food, the price of food is a lot lower, not everyone has to be a farmer and the person who invented the grain combine has enough money to fund some new companies that can find new ways to make people more productive.

If you start taxing wealth and if you tax income at really high rates, you’re probably going to get less of it. But it’s not just that the super-rich will have to share their money with the rest of us. They’re going to save and invest less because the tax system is going to take some of the gains away. If that happens, it won’t just hurt the rich. It will hurt people who benefit from the savings and investment that rich people make in making the rest of us more productive.”

“I would suggest that the world would be a better place if we spent more time as economists looking for ways to allow the poor the chance to flourish and to lead lives of dignity and agency rather than trying to measure the gap between rich and poor and proposing ways to close that gap with money.”

“Is $100 billion all that stands between ending homelessness and giving everyone in America clean water? If that’s true, what a brutal indictment of our government’s ability to solve problems. In 2019, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the federal government spent $4.4 trillion. If only taxes had been set high enough to raise $4.5 trillion! Then we could have cured homelessness and provided everyone with clean water.”

In fact, taxes weren’t really the problem at all. In 2019, the federal government collected $3.5 trillion running a deficit of $900 billion. Sanders’s claim is that an increase in the 2019 deficit of a mere 10% could have ended homelessness and provided everyone with clean water.

What should we conclude? One possibility is that homelessness cannot be solved by spending more money. I think this is true. I also think that the other “socialist” solutions on the table lately like free college, free universal health care, free child-care and so on would not be particularly effective in solving the problems they are meant to solve. The government doesn’t have the best track record of spending money effectively.

But the other reason that we don’t “solve” the problem of homelessness is that the political system responds to political power. Homelessness just isn’t at the top of most politician’s to-do lists.

Of that $4.4 trillion worth of federal spending in 2019, about $700 billion went to defense spending. Would the nation have been unsafe if spending had been a mere $600 billion? The $4.4 trillion the government spent included subsidies to wealthy farmers, subsidies to the education of wealthy individuals attending college via federal student loan programs. It also included Social Security and Medicare payments to individuals many times about the poverty line.

In other words, even though I do not deserve what I have, it is far from clear that increasing the size of government revenue by raising tax rates dramatically will lead to a better world even if I thought giving poor people money would improve their lives. We are likely to get a bunch of other stuff that we will not particularly like.”

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