How to Tax a Billionaire (or Not)

Our institutions created centibillionaires and are now trying to contain them.

In Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, a group of high-achieving industrialists have had enough with being exploited (in their view) by “parasitic” collectivists and “second-handers”. They withdraw to a perfect community Galt’s Gulch aka Atlantis where they can live in peace and prosperity with each other, far away from the do-nothing (in their view) populace and according to their own laws and beliefs.

Because Rand mercifully never wrote a sequel (the original has more words than either War and Peace or Les Misérables), it is not clear whether these supermen and women lived happily ever after or whether, after enjoying the initial high of sticking it to humanity, their infinite egos led them to devour each other to oblivion and Galt’s Gulch disappeared Roanoke-like with no explanation left for posterity. That is, no explanation other than the obvious which is that a healthy society requires a fuller range of social strata and cultures, not only a super-stratum and a monoculture, in order to survive and to prosper.

No escape to Galt’s Gulch is currently offered to today’s billionaires who have so far opted to remain in the real world though they contend daily with insults and attacks from many quarters. It is necessary to say “so far” because some have been toying with otherworldly escapes, be they monetary via cryptocurrencies or interplanetary via emigration to planet Mars. Cryptos would free them from the gravity of central banks. And space from the gravity of Earth. After all, in our culture, “to leave it all behind” is nearly synonymous with high quality living. And to disrupt, to reject the dominant paradigm, are seen as ways to create new wealth.

Bernie vs. Billionaires

While still among us on earth however, even the ultra rich deserve… empathy. Or at least some recognition for their achievements. Their defining characteristic, shorn of all social and economic artifice, remains their humanity, not their wealth. Yet it is assumed by the angry-egalitarian political complex that it is fine to insult and harass a billionaire, as if their humanity was inversely proportional to their wealth. Starting with Bernie Sanders for example, some members of Congress have stated plainly that “billionaires should not exist”.

Because there are among the people mob inciters who amplify their message through social media, this slogan could be interpreted as incendiary, or as unsafely ambiguous. Does ‘billionaires should not exist’ mean that we should tax them until they are no longer billionaires? That would entail taking away 99% of some billionaires’ wealth. Or does it mean that we should limit their growth plans when their wealth hits the $999 million mark? Or force them to give away their wealth to charity? Or something else?

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Update: Working Age Population Around the World 1960-2050

This is an update of a similar post from 2015. The UN projections have changed but only by small numbers. The main observations are the same as six years ago (click table to enlarge in a new tab).

The working age population (WAP, those aged 15 to 64) of sub-Saharan Africa continues to grow rapidly. It has more than doubled since 1990 from 252 million to 609 million, and is expected to more than double again by 2050 to 1.3 billion. If the reality turns out to be anywhere near these projections, it will be a significant challenge for African economies to absorb and to employ productively this enormous amount of new human energy.

India faces a similar challenge with its WAP growing from 928 million now to 1.1 billion in 2050. Though daunting, this represents a slowdown in the rate of growth from the previous thirty-year span 1990-2020.

The WAP of Europe, China and Japan have already peaked and will be declining for the rest of the century, per UN projections. Europe’s decline from near 500 million in 2005 to a projected 407 million by 2050 is mainly due to eastern and southern Europe. The WAP of France and the United Kingdom will flatline to 2050 while those of Germany and Russia decline.

In the United States, the steady growth in the WAP between 1960 and 2005 combined with a falling dependency ratio to fuel strong economic conditions. Growth in the WAP is expected to be more muted in the decades ahead.

Compared to the late 20th century and the first decades of this century, the future growth in the WAP will taper off or even turn negative in several regions and countries. Sub-Saharan Africa stands out as the exception that will maintain strong WAP momentum through at least 2050.

The Boom in Certainty

Sinclair Lewis called it “the sedate pomposity of the commercialist”. Now it has spread to many parts of society, not always in its sedate form.

Back in our final days as architecture students in Austin, our class had a farewell gathering with a professor who had been a valued mentor to several of us. As was habitual on such occasions, the professor was discussing with us the work of various architects when the subject of a newly-constructed building came up.

“I hate that building”, one classmate said flatly.

After an awkward silence, the professor mocked: “you mean, strongly dislike?” Off guard, the offending party protested that his use of the word was innocuous then and there. The professor conceded as much but explained that it was a visceral word, the kind of word that forestalls further discussion and that hardens the speaker’s and listener’s opinions. It is difficult to walk back or to change your mind from “hate”, and easier to do so from “dislike” or even from “strongly dislike”, he argued. His advice was to leave in one’s words an open path for retreat, in essence to never burn one’s rhetorical bridges.

This led to another discussion about certainty and about people who speak with certainty. The professor said that he had a reflexive dislike for certainty and that he felt a profound distrust towards people who speak with certainty. There is very little that is certain in life, he said, even among things of which we are convinced at a given point in time. Opinions change, science changes, research advances. New discoveries change our beliefs. Knowledge doesn’t just flow or evolve gradually like a river; it shifts laterally and sometimes suddenly like an earthquake.

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Camus Against the Virus

Decency is of little value without a foundation of honesty.

Albert Camus’ masterful novel La Peste (The Plague) is enjoying a resurgence in the current pandemic. Published in 1947 in the immediate aftermath of WW2, it was not, or not only, about a biological plague but also about the plague of Nazism or other ideological cancers and their equally devastating effect on humanity.

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Albert Camus

Among the many different citations recently lifted from the book, this particular one has appeared in several articles and countless social media posts:

“It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”

Coming from Camus, this sentence looked unusual because there is no direct literal word in French for decency as we mean it in English. The closest are décence and pudeur but these words convey different meanings.

In the original French text, Camus had written: Read more

Purity or Universalism?

This article first appeared at Quillette.

A few days after his recent passing, the Manhattan Institute reposted a speech by V. S. Naipaul from October 1990. The title, “Our Universal Civilization,” captured the triumphal and optimistic spirit of that moment, nearly one year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In order to render this universal civilization in greater relief, Naipaul related the following about his travels in Asia [emphasis added]:

Traveling among non-Arab Muslims, I found myself among a colonized people who had been stripped by their faith of all that expanding intellectual life, all the varied life of the mind and senses, the expanding cultural and historical knowledge of the world, that I had been growing into on the other side of the world. I was among people whose identity was more or less contained in the faith. I was among people who wished to be pure.

If we had read this paragraph without knowing its date or the subjects’ actual geography, religion, and history (in this case colonized non-Arab Muslims), we might have surmised that Naipaul was talking about parts of America and Europe that he had perhaps visited in the months preceding his death. “People whose identity was more or less contained in the faith” could easily apply to certain constituencies in the West today, the more so if one allows some latitude in the definition of the word ‘faith.’

Nearly 30 years after he delivered this speech, Naipaul’s assumption that this was primarily a religious or Muslim phenomenon seems quaint. Today, we can see that the wish to be pure has emerged in opposition to universalism in many parts of the world including our own. We can no longer claim that it is just Islam that has grown resistant to the universal civilization envisioned by the West in the late twentieth century. Some groups within the West itself have also rediscovered their own craving for purity. Continue reading at Quillette >>>

Capitalism Did Not Win the Cold War

This article first appeared at Foreign Affairs.

Why cronyism was the real victor.

When the Soviet Union collapsed 26 years ago, it was generally agreed that the West had won the Cold War. This was affirmed by the prosperity and possibilities awaiting citizens of Western countries, as opposed to the political and economic stagnation experienced by those in Communist states. A natural conclusion, much repeated at the time, was that capitalism had finally defeated communism.

This sweeping statement was only partially true. If one took capitalism and communism as the only two protagonists in the post–World War II struggle, it was easy to see that the latter had suffered a mortal blow. But there was a third, stealthier protagonist situated between them. This was a system best identified today as cronyism. For if capitalism did win over the other two contenders in 1991, its victory was short-lived. And in the years that have followed, it is cronyism that has captured an ever-increasing share of economic activity. A survey of the distribution of power and money around the world makes it clear: cronyism, not capitalism, has ultimately prevailed. Continue reading at Foreign Affairs >>>

The Economics of Dependency

This article first appeared at Foreign Affairs.

How countries hit the demographic sweet spot.

Demographics are among the most important influences on a country’s overall economic performance, but compared with other contributors, such as the quality of governance or institutions, their impact is underappreciated. Demographic factors, such as the age structure of a population, can determine whether a given economy will grow or stagnate to an even greater extent than can more obvious causes such as government policy.

One of the most consequential aspects of demographics as they relate to the economy is a phenomenon known as the “demographic dividend,” which refers to the boost to economic growth that occurs when a decline in total fertility, and subsequent entry of women into the work force, increases the number of workers (and thus decreases the number of dependents) relative to the total population. The demographic dividend has contributed to some of the greatest success stories of the twentieth century, and countries’ ability to understand and capture this dividend will continue to shape their economic prospects well into the future. Continue reading at Foreign Affairs >>>

Should Children Vote?

The rising cost of entitlements will test inter-generational harmony.img_6331

In the week following the Brexit vote, a recurrent complaint from the losing side was that a majority of older people voted to leave while a majority of younger people voted to remain. In the eyes of the complainers, this rendered the leave outcome less legitimate because younger people have more years of life ahead of them and therefore would allegedly suffer more than old people from a decision to leave the European Union. So much for the wisdom of old age knowing what is best. And so much for the principle of one person one vote, regardless of age, gender or race or whatever.

Instead of disenfranchising a group of older voters, we may consider allowing children some representation in our voting system. In the United States, the voting age is 18 which means that there are approximately 74 million US citizens aged under 18 who do not have the right to vote. That is a sizable 23% of the entire population who will all be adults by 2034 and who may not in the future take kindly to the long-duration budget commitments that were made in their absence. Read more

The Bridge from Laissez-Faire to Socialism

Cronyism remains unchecked in the world’s largest economy.

We might object to the phrase crony capitalism for two reasons:

First, because cronyism is in some ways the antithesis of capitalism. The freedom to compete and the freedom to fail that are central tenets of capitalism are severely compromised by cronyism when in the former case powerful politicians intervene to shield their friends in business and finance from competition, and in the latter intervene again to save them from bankruptcy or occasionally from criminal prosecution. Of course, these friends in turn are no disloyal slouches and they later show themselves to be supremely appreciative by underwriting, financially and otherwise, those same politicians who had all but guaranteed their continued dominance in normal times and their survival against bad odds in times of distress. Read more

America Without Immigration 2015-50

Be careful what you wish for, if that is what you wish for.

Except for the oil shocks of the 1970s and a few other recessionary years, the US economy has generally been strong in the postwar era since 1945. Huge advances in technology and trade, a favorable business environment and strong demographics combined to create tens of trillions of dollars of new wealth in the US and around the world.

The demographic component played an important supporting role. During the baby boom years, the number of Americans grew at an average annualized rate of 1.6% (see chart). In subsequent years starting in the mid 1960s, this growth faded to about 1% where it remained until 2007-08. Since then, it has fallen to 0.7% and, on current UN projections, it will continue to fall through 2050 when it may dip under 0.4%. Read more