I have seen it many times. It comes from this Washington Post article, but it seems to go viral on Twitter about every 6 months or so.
The implication of the chart seems to confirm what many young people feel in their bones: Boomers had it much easier, and it’s getting harder and harder for later generations to catch up and build wealth. For many the graph… explains a lot, as one recent viral Tweet put it (in the weird world of social media, 5 short words and a recycled chart are all it takes for 20,000 retweets).
But wait. A few questions probably come to mind. For example, when Boomers were young they comprised a much larger share of the population. The original article makes an attempt to adjust for this, by calculating a few ratios towards the end of the article. However, there’s a much more straightforward way to adjust for this, which also nicely fits into a chart: put wealth in per capita terms!
If we do that, here’s the chart we get (also, of course, adjusted for inflation).
We know that density is good for most environmental measures. With greater density comes less water runoff, less carbon emissions, less burned fossil fuel. With density, fewer people own vehicles, implements of yard curation, and we require fewer roofs per person.
What else do we know?
We know that in a static economy, progressive taxation makes after-tax incomes more equal. There are formal models that say the same thing about dynamic economies. Progressive taxation results in more income equality, and regressive taxation results in less. For clarity, income tax progressivity is determined by percent of income paid in taxes. When the rich pay a higher percent tax rate, that’s more progressive.
Are you ready?
Wealthy people tend to have more valuable land. That is, they improve the land and the things built on it. Do you want to tax land progressively? Then what you want is a property tax with a sliding tax rate. This way, you can make those rich people pay their ‘fair share‘. Even without a sliding scale, rich people will pay more dollars for their improved land.
Now that we are taxing property on land proportionally, rich people are seeking alternatives. They’re trying to avoid taxes! What do they do? Well, a smaller and cheaper house is a nonstarter. What is all that wealth for, if not to enjoy it partly through one’s home environment? The rich are going to find a place to live where they can be comfortable and where their property taxes are lower. Maybe a place where the land is not so expensive. Hello rural estate!
Do you want a proportional property tax so that rich people pay for the value of their property? Be ready to say hello to suburbanization and sprawl. All those benefits of urbanization mentioned above? Invert all of them to see the results.
I see the attraction of taxing immovable property. Taxing a residence is nice for the government because the tax revenues are nice and stable, given the relatively inelastic demand for real property.
If only there were a real property tax scheme that provided stable revenues and encouraged urbanization… Well, the answer is not to try taxing the value of the land without taxing the value of property. What am I? A Georgist?
A Georgist I am not. But, I do have an affinity for lump sum taxes.
If, as a polity, you want urbanization, then impose lump sum taxes per area of land owned. Doesn’t matter if it’s a house. Doesn’t matter if it’s commercial. Doesn’t matter if it’s unimproved farm land. Just sit back and watch the skyline rise, our environmental footprint shrink, and plenty of land being turned into wildlife preserves and parks.
People have feelings. Consider a beautiful multi story single-family home on an acre. Now consider a mobile home with a large yard and some trees – also on an acre. With a standard, flat proportional property tax, the owner of the big pricey house pays more. With lump sum taxes per square foot of land, they pay the same dollar figure. In other words, the less wealthy person pays a higher proportion of his properties value in taxes. In case you missed it, this beautiful solution to sprawl and environmental degradation comes hand-in-hand with proportional regressivity.
I live in Collier County Florida. If all of the land, excluding surface water, in the county was taxed at the same lump sum per square foot, then we would need to pay about $1,600 per acre in order to replace all revenues currently collected from a variety of sources. If we assume that government property is excluded from the tax and we assume that the government owns a very liberal 10% of all property, then it is more like $1,780.
I haven’t even discussed all of the improved economic performance that an already developed counties might enjoy by eliminating the distortionary excise taxes and ad valorem taxes. I don’t know about you, but $1,600 doesn’t sound too bad in exchange for eliminating all the other nickel and dimes that add up to quite a bit.
(Just as I am not a Georgist, I am also not a revolutionary. We need not jump in head-first. We could ease our way into such a system. We’d just add a fixed lump-sum portion to existing property tax bills that increases over time. Property taxes bills would be calculated slope-intercept style with a portion being constant and a portion being dependent of property value.)
Most people would consider both equality and efficiency to be good. They are “goods” in the sense that more of them makes us happier. However, in some situations, there is a trade-off between having more equality and getting more efficiency. Extreme income redistribution makes people less productive and therefore lowers overall economic output.
Examining the preferences people have for efficiency and equality is hard to do because the world is complicated. For example, a lot of baggage comes along with real world policy proposals to raise(lower) taxes to do more(less) income redistribution. A voter’s preference for a particular policy could be confounded by their personal feelings toward a particular politician who might have just had a personal scandal.
With Gavin Roberts, I ran an experiment to test whether people would rather get efficiency or equality (paper on SSRN). Something neat that we can do in a controlled lab setting is systematically vary the prices of the goods (see my earlier related post on why it’s neat to do this kind of thing in the lab).
One wants to immediately know, “Which is it? Do people want equality or efficiency?”. If forced to give a short answer, I would say that the evidence points to equality. But overly simplifying the answer is not helpful for making policy. The demand curve for equality slopes down. If the price of equality is too high, then people will not choose it. In our experiment, that price could be in terms of either own income or in group efficiency. We titled our paper “Other People’s Money” because more equality is purchased when the cost comes in terms of other players’ money.
The main task for subjects in our experiment is to choose either an unequal distribution of income between 3 players or to pick a more equal distribution. Given what I said above that people like equality, you might expect that everyone will choose the more equal distribution. However, choosing a more equal distribution comes at a cost. Either subjects will give up some of their own earnings from the experiment or they will lower the total group earnings. As is true in policy, some schemes to reduce inequality are higher cost than others. When the cost is low, we observe many subjects (about half) paying to get more equality. However, when the cost is high, very few subjects choose to buy equality.
This bar graph from our working paper shows some of the average behavior in the experiment, but it does not show the important results about price-sensitivity.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the disagreements among economists about the extent to which inequality has increased in recent decades. I am facilitating a reading group at my university on inequality this semester with some great undergrads, so it has very much been on my mind.
With conflicting data showing different trends, how are we as economists to judge this? How can the general public even have a clue how to judge this?
You may have seen this chart before. It comes from an article in The Economist, which actually does a really good job of explaining the debate over the data if you know nothing about it.
According to some estimates, the share of income going to the top 1% has doubled and is now over 20%. That sounds bad. Maybe we need some more redistribution. Maybe a wealth tax.
But according to other estimates, and taking account of our existing system of progressive taxes and redistribution, the share of income going to the top 1% has not risen at all, is only about 5%. Less worrisome. The existing system of taxes and transfers seems to be doing a pretty good job, or at least no worse than in the last 60 years. No need for a new wealth tax, etc.
So who is right?
Sorry, I don’t have the answer. I think I’m pretty good at digging into economic data (follow me @jmhorp on Twitter for an almost daily dose of data debunking!), but I am no expert in this area. There’s probably only a dozen economists that really understand this data and the trade-offs in different forms of measurement.
So instead of giving you the “correct” answer, I offer you a chance to reflect. Our temptation is to say the “correct” data is the one that comports with our political preferences. If you are a progressive, you probably think inequality is bad and getting worse. Piketty is your man. If you are more of a libertarian, you probably think it’s about the same as recent years. Auten and Splinter must be right!
Stop. And instead, consider how you might view the policy implications of the data you don’t like being the correct data. If you are a progressive, would you still think we need a wealth tax even if the Auten and Splinter data is correct? If you are a libertarian, would you still think things are just fine and maybe we should cut the top tax rate if it turns out that Piketty and co-authors have the real data?
If you answer is the same for the policy implications regardless of what the data say, you might want to check yourself. And if so, why are we even arguing about the data?
Perhaps your answer is “I might have the same policy answer regardless of the data, but there are people out there that are convinced by data.” I think that’s possibly reasonable, and I would like it to be true, but where are these people?
Perhaps the answer is “as a libertarian, I don’t care about inequality so long as the poor and middle class are also sharing in the gains.” Or “as a progressive, I will continue to worry about inequality until the top 1% only has 1% of national income.”
I think these are the normal fallback answers. But really? Libertarians: if the income of the top 1% doubled in a decade, but the bottom 99% increased by 0.5%, you would be fine with this, because at least no one declined? Progressives: you would really support increasing taxes on the rich, despite any downside to this, until incomes were exactly equalized?
Frankly, I don’t believe anyone really holds either of those extreme positions. So surely, the data must matter? We want some reasonably shared benefits from economic growth, but no one really demands that they be exactly equal, right?
So, consider your own biases. Don’t engage in motivated reasoning. And think through how your views might change if you are wrong about the data. Perhaps someday Mother Nature will reveal herself, we’ll have the true inequality data, and we’ll see if we were honest about our reflections.