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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Lebanon in Crisis, with Joe Issa El Khoury

“Historically, Lebanon prospered as a result of inflows of people and funds – people who came to take refuge in Lebanon and also funds. If we look at the post World War 2 period when modern Lebanon became independent and also at previous periods that Lebanon went through – and I mean over the past 100 or 200 years – one thing that was common to all these eras is its liberal economic system that was adopted by all who lived on this land. The constant was the liberal economic system.”____ Joe Issa El Khoury

Sami J. Karam speaks with Joe Issa El Khoury, a Beirut-based financier, about the tragic events that have unfolded in Lebanon since 2019. A sharp fall in the currency, a banking freeze, a political crisis, hyperinflation, and widespread street protests made 2019 a difficult year. But these events were then compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic and the explosion in the port of Beirut in 2020.

Issa El Khoury explains the sequence of events that led to the present, and offers a possible way forward.

Topics include:

  • 0:00 Introduction of Joe Issa El Khoury
  • 2:25 What is it like right now on the ground in Beirut?
  • 8:33 Why did Lebanon have a golden period in 1945-75; why was it later so prone to crisis?
  • 17:40 The Rafik Hariri era and the return of growth 1990-2005
  • 20:00 What explains the weakness of the Lebanese state: geography and demographics
  • 26:30 Lebanon’s diversity as a source of wealth; Example of Lebanese cuisine
  • 30:40 Crossing the line from a laissez-faire economy to a crony economy
  • 35:05 The real estate boom of 2007-11
  • 36:55 The impact of the Syrian civil war
  • 39:10 Crowding out the private sector
  • 44:10 The proximate factors that led to the meltdown
  • 46:15 The current condition of the banking sector; Role of the Central Bank
  • 51:00 Will depositors suffer a haircut? The Lazard and other plans
  • 54:45 Talk of privatization of state assets
  • 59:45 Political patronage in the public sector
  • 1:01:50 “All roads lead to Washington DC and the acronym IMF”
  • 1:05:20 Political reform and the role of the diaspora

TO HEAR THE PODCAST, CLICK HERE OR ON THE TIMELINE BELOW:

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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Talking About Cities, with Aaron Renn

“You go to some of these places [Midwestern cities], the question they ask when they meet you is ‘where did you go to high school’?… The fact that where you went to high school is a social marker places you in a community. You go to Washington DC and nobody cares where you went to high school… In New York, they ask ‘where are you from?’ because it is assumed that you are not from here. Some of these places in the Midwest… need more outsiders to come in because outsiders are the natural constituency of the new.” _____Aaron Renn

AaronRennAaron Renn, a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, speaks to Sami J. Karam about US cities. What makes the large coastal cities so successful? What are the prospects for mid-sized and smaller cities in the Rust Belt? What is the current state of play for mass transit? What role does immigration play in the development of cities?

Among the cities discussed, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Washington DC, Seattle, Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Francisco, Charlotte, Minneapolis-St Paul, Nashville, Columbus, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, St Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, Madison, Iowa City, Rochester (MN), Singapore, Paris.

Topics include:

  • 0:00 Introduction of Aaron Renn
  • 1:15 What makes the large coastal cities so successful at creating wealth?
  • 8:30 Can a large city become dominant in a new sector? (e.g., New York in tech)
  • 13:00 How would you categorize non-coastal cities in terms of their prospects?
  • 16:30 Why some cities are struggling while others are restructuring successfully
  • 20:55 Will some smaller cities turn into ghost towns within twenty years?
  • 26:35 What is going on with Detroit’s recovery?
  • 30:40 The role of new immigrants in the development of a city
  • 36:50 Immigration policy in Canada and Australia compared to the US and UK
  • 43:50 What is the future for mass transit?
  • 48:00 The lack of city to city benchmarking in infrastructure costing and execution
  • 53:40 Is there anything going on in high-speed rail, other than in California?
  • 59:40 The decline of trust in institutions and the problem of cronyism.

TO HEAR THE PODCAST, CLICK HERE OR ON THE TIMELINE BELOW:

The Cure for Inequality is More Laissez-Faire

That means less cronyism and more competition.

“Inequality is not necessarily bad in itself: the key question is to decide whether it is justified.”____ Thomas Piketty in Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Piketty’s words read like a premise that is only half right, followed by a problematic corollary. Reasonable people will agree that some inequality is not only “not necessarily bad” but also very desirable and very necessary in order to stimulate the economy’s entrepreneurial and innovative spirits. Further, if some inequality is desirable, how much is enough and how much is too much? And who gets to decide?

Clearly, there will never be a consensus on this. And it is not a satisfactory solution that the majority party would decide for the next four or eight or twelve years. The back and forth dominance of one party over the other would mean that any measures enacted to combat extreme inequality would at best amount to a feeble and erratic effort instead of a long-term cure, while the underlying problem gets larger with every electoral cycle.

To make things worse, both of the major parties in the United States are mistaken to ascribe inequality to an excess of capitalism. Democrats claim that growing inequality is the result of unbridled ‘wild west’ capitalism. And Republicans argue that it is a mostly acceptable byproduct of capitalism. But extreme inequality is in fact caused by insufficient competition. Given  that competition is the lifeblood of capitalism, it follows that inequality is the result, not of capitalism, but of a lack of capitalism.

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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 >>>

Cronyism and its Scapegoats

Cronyism destroys trust and assigns the blame to scapegoats of its own creation.

Only a fiercely committed left or right-winger would fail to recognize that there is today a social and political divide that does not easily fit within the traditional mold of left vs. right. If, loosely speaking, the left leans socialist and the right leans capitalist, there is a third branch, cronyism, that is characterized by the rising power and wealth of rent-seeking industries and individuals. In the past, this branch was dominant mainly in poorer countries with weaker institutions. But today it has also gained significant strength in a number of developed countries, including the United States.

In fact, if the Republican Party has been hijacked by Trumpism, as some allege, then we could say that capitalism has been similarly hijacked by cronyism. In our view, this parallel is nearly seamless, given that the GOP is traditionally pro-capitalism – in words if not always in deeds – and that the incumbent administration is largely populated with captains of rent-seeking industries. Read more

Immigration and Trust

Do we only really trust people who are like us? And if so, is that a mistake?

Distrust of the unfamiliar and the foreign is a natural survival mechanism for most species, including the human species. But, if empirical evidence is worth anything, a reflexive distrust of the foreigner cannot be said to be equally benign. Distrust sows fear. And fear plays in the hands of demagogues and can turn into a contagious pathology with numerous undesirable consequences.

One of these consequences is an excess of caution. Safety is important but an obsession with safety is counterproductive. Locking your door at night is prudent, but fear of ever leaving your house can lead to atrophy and other physical and mental degradations. As in most things, a fine calibration between the desire for safety and the need to accept minimal risks is likely to yield the best outcome. Read more

Cronyism Damaged Venezuela before Chavez

Venezuela is bankrupt, having just defaulted on three interest payments. And much of the world is pointing fingers at the socialist policies of Hugo Chavez and those of his successor, the incumbent Nicolás Maduro. This laying of the blame is not wrong but it is incomplete.

The kindest thing you could say about Mr. Chavez is that he was a talented demagogue who brilliantly identified his opportunity and judiciously seized his moment. But, as previously argued by Fred McMahon of the Fraser Institute, Chavez did not start Venezuela’s downward spiral. He was instead one of the final acts in the country’s decades-long devolution from laissez-faire capitalism to cronyism and finally to socialism. Cronies undermined Venezuela’s economy for decades and opened the door to Chavez’s socialism. Read more

Africa: 800 Million Jobs Needed

African economies are in a race to get ahead of the demographic boom.

“Let us share without fear the journey of migrants and refugees.” Pope Francis (@Pontifex) tweet on 27 September 2017.

While some people in the United States are sweating the presence, against the backdrop of a demographically stagnant white population, of the 11 million undocumented immigrants or of the 30+ million other foreign-born residents, there are far bigger numbers brewing in other parts of the world, numbers that are so large that they could affect, decades from now, the life of an American citizen far more than would the rare determined Mexican or Guatemalan who manages henceforth to scale President Trump’s purportedly impenetrable border wall.

In the next decades as was so often the case in history, the future shape of the world could once again be decided in Europe and by Europe’s and the West’s handling of Africa’s incipient demographic boom.

In fact, if you are a generous-minded European who shares the Pope’s noble sentiment and who views the ongoing wave of migrants coming into your country as a benign and positive development; or, if you believe that borders are outdated constructs and that all refugees and other immigrants should be welcomed into the rich world; indeed, if it is your view that anyone who stands in the way of this openness is misguided by racist and nefarious motives, then it behooves you to test the strength of your belief by examining the larger demographic data coming out of Africa and Asia. Read more