March 11, 2013

Is growing income inequality inevitable?

I recently had a short twitter conversation with @RepBrianKing regarding wealth and income inequality. He had posted a link to this YouTube video that discusses the subject. I had responded that "our policies that have become more slanted towards so called socialism, have made things worse not better" and later that "Income inequality is a big threat, but neither socialist nor conservative approaches will work. They both make it worse." This led him to ask the question in the title of this post, "Is growing income inequality inevitable?" Well, the short answer echos the Lorax: "Unless.". The not quite as short answer is "It will be difficult to do, and certainly not guaranteed, and will require some very new approaches to government policy." The long answer needs a lot of explanation. I will first address the problems, then the solution, and then the challenges of implementing such a program.

THE PROBLEMS. (You can skip this section if you know all this already.)

1. Wealth and income inequalities. Wealth and income inequality are not the same and often get confused, but they are both problems. They affect everyone, but not in the same ways. Extreme wealth inequality will ultimately result is chaos, civil unrest, or even war, and perhaps even widespread slavery (think Roman or Mayan empire slavery, not just revolutionary war American slavery.) This is because ultimately, all the resources of an economy become concentrated in the hands of the very few, and the entire rest of the society ceases to have any stake in it, but become serfs in a new feudalism. We are not there yet, but it can happen. One of the most significant modern implosions of a strong society was the implosion of the Argentine economy in the early 1900s. It was a very robust and powerful economy, but the wealth had become concentrated. This led to war lords and ultimately the horrors that followed under years of political purges and dictatorship. Income inequality leads to wealth inequality, but it also has some immediate problems of its own. It has the tendency to lead to vast growing over-indebtedness.  Eventually all of that debt will turn into a massive default, which will wipe out the wealth of even most of the upper class (the 10% through 2%). True, they might maintain a slight income advantage over others, but their wealth will mostly be eliminated.
2. Broken safety nets. Today, we have social safety nets that are supposed to help keep the poor from abject poverty and misery. These include social security, medicare and medicaid, welfare, unemployment, disability, food stamps, and myriads of other lesser programs. Each of these are designed to address some specific ill or condition, but often contain elements that penalize real success at getting back on their feet again. For instance, unemployment provides up to 40% of what a person made (up to a cap), but if they happen to make a few dollars doing freelance or temporary work, it takes dollar for dollar from what they would be getting. They are immediately penalized for any small success, and the only incentive the unemployment provides is to not get a job or have any outside income. Any partial success they get immediately tears into what little safety net that they have. Also, some of these programs have cliff like cutoffs. One minute you have vital help, and as soon as you get a little success, the rug gets pulled out from underneath you. Another example is the minimum wage. Raising it does seem to help in the short term, but the prices on basic items, that have the smallest margins for businesses, get raised first and hit the poor the hardest, resulting in eventually lowering their standard of living.
3. Bad socialist policies. Socialist policies of tax the rich and redistribute it to the poor don't work either. They sound great in theory, but in practice, history has repeatedly shown it doesn't work. Look at Russia. After 70 years of the most stark socialist policies in history, their income and wealth inequality are worse than ours. Their rich are richer, and their poor are poorer. The reasons for this are complex and varied, but the fact is it doesn't work. 
(Why it doesn't work: instead of better equalizing the created wealth, it reduces the amount of wealth created while the distribution of that wealth doesn't actually improve. Instead it disappears into hidden, protected, or institutional holdings, and does so at an even higher rate. The rich and powerful find ways to position themselves within an even more influential power structure, and then become untouchable overlords. They only way to apply such a system is through extreme application of force, which dehumanizes both those being forced, and those doing the forcing, and doesn't end up being successful in the long run.)
4. Bad conservative policies. Conservative policies of flat taxation and minimal government regulation have a tendency to get blown out of proportion.  They turn into a wild west type scenario with the attitude of "You have have what you can take"  and the strongest, or best armed have a tendency to turn into thugs or robber barrons and they victimize others. Again, this dehumanizes both the victims and the victimizers. The reasons these conservative policies don't work are a little more clear than the socialist policies. They don't have the negative of reducing wealth creation, and it doesn't tend to hit the middle classes quite as hard, but the results are the same in the long run and those at the top end still get richer while everyone else gets poorer.
5. Corporate usurpation. Wealth and income inequality is made worse with institutionalization of the corporate mindset: a.  Our companies are too big to fail and  b.Employees aren't even slaves, they are numbers and calculations. Corporations are generally not affected by socialist policies as they generally are able to buy themselves an exception. They wield such unbelievable power in influence by the kind of wealth they can throw around, that only other corporations stand in their way. And yet, corporations keep getting bigger and more powerful. Too big to fail. They can nearly collapse our economy, and we will bail them out and transfer their liability to us, because we are too afraid of what happens if they go away. The individuals involved are part of that 1%, and they are untouchable. They can spend money that isn't even theirs to manipulate the world around them. If they do something repulsive or vile, they can hide behind their corporations and stand blameless. Our tax policies hardly touch them.

THE SOLUTIONS (Read carefully)
These solutions are NOT a cafeteria plan. Only a few will be effective without the others, and then, not very much. They all need to be there in support of each other.
1. We need a fair wage act. This act would replace our current wage laws. It is focuses on real earnings of employees in an organization. Organizations with employees generate wealth, and those involved in generating that wealth need to share in that. Organizations (companies, non-profits, government agencies, etc) should be subject to a policy that can be expressed as: the highest compensated individual's total pay can not exceed the organization multiple of the lowest compensated individual's total pay. The organization multiple is determined by organization size. The penalty could be a fine, a corporate tax, or whatever would incentivize organizations to follow the policy. In order to be effective, private contractors would have to be included in these calculations, and total pay would have to include bonuses, commissions, benefits, stock options and any other compensation that has monetary value. The only thing not included in this is dividends paid to stock holders. That is covered later.
2. A better Fair Tax. You may have heard of the fair tax. It is mostly backed by a bunch of tea-partier, anti-IRS types. Sometimes I wonder if they really understand what it is they claim to support. Anyway, they have several things right, and understanding why those are right, and how to use them is important. On the other hand, they have several things wrong, which would make things worse if not addressed and corrected. Things they have right: First, a prebate that is equal across all registered citizens and residents and their dependents which can make even the worst regressive tax system progressive. In fact, if done right, it can be the first tier of a safety net that doesn't penalize success. Second. Taxing income only serves to perpetuate the income divide. Those at the top of the wealth scale don't make income. They make dividends and capital gains, but not income. And often they can offset those by so-called loses. Taxing consumption can be applied more universally, with less tax evasion, and is effective at taxing even those who get around the income tax. It makes shifts foreign trade vastly in our favor, without subsidies or tariffs. Things they have wrong: They want to exclude education and investments. Having worked in the education industry for years, it is an industry. It needs to be taxed just like everything else. It spreads the burden more evenly, and takes away the advantage of those who can afford much better education without paying part of the tax burden. Even more so, investment has to be taxed. It is the primary method of perpetuation of wealth without paying their fair share. The tax level should not be so high as to destroy investment, but if they can pay 5 percent broker fees, surely they can afford to pay tax. They don't have to pay taxes on the gains, just on the investment. It becomes part of the cost of investing. By taxing everything, including education and investment, we can provide a larger prebate, maybe to double what they are currently proposing. That large of a prebate would act as a first safety net buffer to those who are poor. It could greatly improve their financial situation. For those who make more, they still get the prebate, but it is much less significant to them.
3. 20% Accounts. These accounts take care of a large portion of the rest of the social safety net. They are the first tier of unemployment. They help employees feel a little less trapped, and give them a fallback when the worst comes. They are funded by the employer as a 20% match for all compensation for all employees. Who manages them is less important than the fact that they are there. They could be managed by the individual, by investment professionals, or even government agencies. Also, regardless of who manages it, it needs to limit risk for the bulk of the principle while still trying to have some growth. These accounts are generally not tap-able unless the person is unemployed, retired, or in special circumstances as determined by regulation.
4. Inheritance and Gift limits per recipient.  Those with vast wealth perpetuate others with vast wealth. They may have earned it, but they don't help society by creating an upper echelon of society who become untouchable 1%'s. But, what if they were limited in how much they could give to any one person. It could be enough that the recipient could do anything, but not enough to do nothing, or enough to usurp control and power over society. Those with vast wealth would have to spread their wealth out enough to cause it to re-enter the economy. Those who inherit such large amounts might be able to repeat their progenitors success, or they might just live the high life. Either way, the wealth gets spread out, and directly affects wealth inequality for the better.
5. Corporate size and influence limits. We need to make sure no corporation is too big to fail, or even big enough to establish a non-competitive environment. There are many ways to do this. One way would be to limit the number of locations a company can have. This would not limit franchises, as those are generally owned by others, but it would keep them from getting too big. There are other ways to limit the size and scope of corporations, but their size needs to be vastly limited. Some few corporations are of a nature that their size would still surpass reasonable levels, and those should be subject to very rigid restrictions that keep them from engaging in anti-competitive or undesirable behaviors.
6. Self sufficiency programs. It is in individuals', society's, and the government's best interest for communities, families, and individuals to be as self sufficient as possible. This reduces dependency on both society and the government, increases self worth, creates a more stable economy, and improves the overall desirability of the American life. At the same time, self sufficiency is highly dependent on individual attitudes. Attitudes can not be legislated or even regulated. But they can be affected with public service campaigns, and it is well within the scope of government in all but the most minimalist libertarian schemes to perform public education and service programs. Additionally, government can inspire and help develop programs to facilitate the success of those who have this attitude.
7. Limited scope additional safety net programs. There are still those who will be subject to extreme circumstances that prevent them from living at an acceptable level. They will need additional programs for things like disabilities, catastrophic medial conditions, or natural disasters. These programs should be designed, where possible, to help people get back on their own feet as quickly as they can, and should be very carefully monitored and regulated so as to not become abused or ineffective.


Obviously, it is easy to miss potential challenges. This list is certainly not exhaustive, but these are definitely some of the challenges.  It will take a lot of effort to overcome just these.
1. Entrenched Ideologies. The first challenge exists because we as a nation and culture have taken our eyes off of what we hope to ultimately achieve. We instead focus on pet issues, programs, and platitudes that have little real chance of reaching those goals. Each political party and faction has these sacred cows, and anything but their way is considered unacceptable. There is a lot of momentum in these false hopes, and to get people to stop and think, and to realize that the status-quo is quickly tearing our country apart, will take a lot of effort and self control to break from the fixed mindset we are currently in.
2. Educating the populace. Our populations are pretty ignorant of how government really works and affects their lives. Most of our people can quote campaign slogans, but have no idea how those would translate into whatever they think they are voting for. Except for the politically active, very few have taken the time and effort to understand much about these processes. Worse yet, they don't even want to know. Getting them to understand that these things will help them will take a lot of effort and patience.
3. Getting the idea out. Before we can address entrenched ideologies or ignorant populaces, first we have to get the idea out there. It will take a lot of people who really believe these policies will work and that these are problems that must be addressed.
4. Finding effective evangelists. Not everybody is equally effective at spreading the word. There are those who, by means of charisma, or public presence, or fame, or some other factor, are much more effective than most at getting others to both listen to what they say and to believe it. It will be critical to find those public opinion leaders who can help establish an effective movement for these proposals.
5. Critical mass. As with many things, there will probably be some sort of critical mass. Once enough espouse these ideas and policies, there will be a landslide to follow. Unfortunately, where that critical mass is and how to get there is generally unknown.
6. Vested interests. Obviously, if you are in the top 1%, these policies do not benefit you. You are powerful and influential and are going to do your best to see that these things never see the light of day. If you are not in the top 5%, chances are these polices will benefit you. These ideas are not designed to punish success, however, and getting those who are in the other 4 percent to see that will be difficult. Still, under these policies everyone can still enjoy the benefits of their success, but will not be able to just pass it on to create a dynasty. The top 1%'s kids will probably start off with a moderate competitive advantage, but not an insurmountable one. They will have to work for their own success just as their parents did.

In summary, these problems are serious and will destroy us as a nation and a culture if not effectively addressed. I have been thinking about these issues for years and have come up with the what I feel is the best policy proposals to address these things overall. Not being a very effective evangelist, I have been called everything from communist to robber baron to fascist when describing these ideas to people. I hope I have done a better job of describing these this time. These ideas are formulated for effectiveness, not for selling. They pass the economic, psychological, sociological, historical and mathematical evaluations I have tried them against. Having said that, these are new ideas, and implementation rarely mirrors theory. Even if implemented, there are likely to be many pitfalls in the way, but in years of searching for solutions to these problems, I haven't seen anything else which seems likely to work.