Tag Archive for 'Tax'

Ayn Rand, small government and the charitable sector

The Economist’s blog, Democracy in America, has a post from a few days ago — “Tax Day”, for Americans, is the 15th of April — looking at Ayn Rand’s rather odd view of government.  Ms. Rand, apparently, did not oppose the existence of a (limited) government spending public money, but did oppose the raising of that money through coercive taxation.

Here’s the almost-anonymous W.W., writing at The Economist:

This left her in the odd and almost certainly untenable position of advocating a minimal state financed voluntarily. In her essay “Government Financing in a Free Society“, Rand wrote:

“In a fully free society, taxation—or, to be exact, payment for governmental services—would be voluntary. Since the proper services of a government—the police, the armed forces, the law courts—are demonstrably needed by individual citizens and affect their interests directly, the citizens would (and should) be willing to pay for such services, as they pay for insurance.”

This is faintly ridiculous. From one side, the libertarian anarchist will agree that people are willing to pay for these services, but that a government monopoly in their provision will lead only to inefficiency and abuse. From the other side, the liberal statist will defend the government provision of the public goods Rand mentions, but will quite rightly argue that Rand seems not to grasp perhaps the main reason government coercion is needed, especially if one believes, as Rand does, that individuals ought to act in their rational self-interest.

The idea of private goods vs. public goods, I think, is something that Rand would have recognised, if not in the formally defined sense we use today, but I do not think that Rand really knew much about externalities and the ability of carefully-targeted government taxation to improve the allocative efficiency of otherwise free markets.  I think it’s fair to say that she would probably have outright denied the possibility of anything like multiple equilibria and the subsequent possibility of poverty traps.  Furthermore, while she clearly knew about and despised free riders (the moochers  in “Atlas Shrugged“), the idea of their being a problem in her view of voluntarily-financed government apparently never occurred to her.

However, this does give me an excuse to plump for two small ideas of mine:

First, I consider the charitable (i.e. not-for-profit) sector as falling under the same umbrella as the government when I consider how the economy of a country is conceptually divided.  In their expenditure of money, they are essentially the same:  the provision of “public good” services to the country at large, typically under a rubric of helping the most disadvantaged people in society.  It is largely only in they way they raise revenue that they differ.  Rand would simply have preferred that a (far, far) greater fraction of public services be provided through charities.  I suspect, to a fair degree, that the Big Society [official site] push by the Tories in the UK is about a shift in this direction and that, as a corollary, that Mr. Cameron would agree with my characterisation.

Philanthropy UK gives the following figures for the size of the charitable sectors in the UK, USA, Germany and The Netherlands in 2006:

Country Giving (£bn) GDP (£bn) Giving/GDP
UK 14.9 1230 1.1%
USA 145.0 6500 2.2%
Germany 11.3 1533 0.7%
The Netherlands 2.9 340 0.9%

Source: CAF Charity Trends, Giving USA, Then & Spengler (2005 data), Geven in Nederland (2005 data)

Combining this with the total tax revenue as a share of GDP for that same year (2006), we get:

Country Tax Revenue/GDP Giving/GDP Total/GDP
UK 36.5% 1.1% 37.6%
USA 29.9% 2.2% 31.1%
Germany 35.4% 0.7% 36.1%
The Netherlands 39.4% 0.9% 40.3%

Source: OECD for the tax data, Philanthropy UK for the giving data

Which achieves nothing other than to go some small way towards showing that there’s not quite as much variation in “public” spending across countries as we might think.  I’d be interested to see a breakdown of what services are offered by charities across countries (and what share of expenditure they represent).

Second, I occasionally toy with the idea of people being able to allocate some (not all!) of their tax to specific government spending areas.  Think of it being an optional extra page of questions on your tax return.  Sure, money being the fungible thing that it is, the government would be able to shift the remaining funds around and keep spending in the proportions that they wanted to, but it would introduce a great deal more democratic transparency into the process.  I wonder what Ms. Rand (or other modern day libertarians) would make of the idea …

Anyway … let me finish by quoting Will Wilkinson again, in his quoting of Lincoln:

As Abraham Lincoln said so well,

“The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate, and individual capacities.”

Citizens reasonably resent a government that milks them to feed programmes that fail Lincoln’s test. The inevitable problem in a democracy is that we disagree about which programmes those are. Some economists are fond of saying that “economics is not a morality play”, but like it or not, our attitudes toward taxation are inevitably laden with moral assumptions. It doesn’t help to ignore or casually dismiss them. It seems to me the quality and utility of our public discourse might improve were we to do a better job of making these assumptions explicit.

That last point — of making the moral assumptions of fiscal proposals explicit — would be great, but it is probably (and sadly) a pipe dream.

More on the US bank tax

Further to my last post, Greg Mankiw — who is not a man to lightly advocate an increase in taxes on anything, but who understands very well the problems of negative externalities and implicit guarantees — has written a good post on the matter:

One thing we have learned over the past couple years is that Washington is not going to let large financial institutions fail. The bailouts of the past will surely lead people to expect bailouts in the future. Bailouts are a specific type of subsidy–a contingent subsidy, but a subsidy nonetheless.

In the presence of a government subsidy, firms tend to over-expand beyond the point of economic efficiency. In particular, the expectation of a bailout when things go wrong will lead large financial institutions to grow too much and take on too much risk.
What to do? We could promise never to bail out financial institutions again. Yet nobody would ever believe us. And when the next financial crisis hits, our past promises would not deter us from doing what seemed expedient at the time.

Alternatively, we can offset the effects of the subsidy with a tax. If well written, the new tax law would counteract the effects of the implicit subsidies from expected future bailouts.

My desire for a convex (i.e. increasing marginal rate of) tax derives from the fact that the larger financial institutions are on the receiving end of larger implicit guarantees, even after taking their size into account.

Update:  Megan McArdle writes, entirely sensibly (emphasis mine):

That implicit guarantee is very valuable, and the taxpayer should get something in return. But more important is making sure that the federal government is prepared for the possibility that we may have to make good on those guarantees. If we’re going to levy a special tax on TBTF banks, let it be a stiff one, and let it fund a really sizeable insurance pool that can be tapped in emergencies. Like the FDIC, the existance of such a pool would make runs less likely in the shadow banking system, but it would also protect taxpayers. Otherwise, with our mounting entitlement liabilities, we run the risk of offering guarantees we can’t really make good on.

I agree with the idea, but — unlike Megan — I would allow some of it to be collected directly as a tax now on the basis that the initial drawing-down of the pool came before any of the levies were collected (frustration at the political diversion of TARP funds to pay for the Detroit bailout aside).

The US bank tax

Via Felix Salmon, I see the basic idea for the US bank tax has emerged:

The official declined to name the firms that would be subject to the tax aside from A.I.G. But the 50-odd firms, which include 10 to 15 American subsidiaries of foreign institutions, would include Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, General Electric’s GE Capital unit, HSBC, Deutsche Bank, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup and Bank of America.

The tax, which would be collected by the Internal Revenue Service, would amount to about $1.5 million for every $1 billion in bank assets subject to the fee.

According to the official, the taxable assets would exclude what is known as a bank’s tier one capital — its core finances, which include common and preferred stock, disclosed reserves and retained earnings. The tax also would not apply to a bank’s insured deposits from savers, for which banks already pay a fee to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

i.e. 0.15%.  It’s certainly simple and that counts for a lot.  It’s difficult to argue against something like this.

I would still have liked to see it as a convex function so that, for example, it might be 0.1% for the first 50 billion of qualifying assets, 0.2% for the next 50 billion and 0.3% thereafter.

Better yet, pick a size that represents too big to fail (yes, it would be somewhat arbitrary), then set it at 0% below, and increasing convexly above, that limit.

Why I like Andrew Leigh

The man just talks sense. He argues that:

we can save a lot of Australians the bother of filling out an annual tax return. In August, the ATO would simply send you a statement saying what they think you owe. If you agree with it, if you have no complex income, and if you don’t want to claim any deductions, you do nothing. Of course, if you want to claim your deductions, you’re welcome to do so.

Simplifying tax-filing should appeal to politicians of all political stripes. Whether you think tax rates should be lower or higher, you should support lowering the compliance burden.

His primary article is here.