by das monde
Sat Jan 21st, 2012 at 05:43:52 AM EST
I was going to respond to a discussion on taxation in the Inequality diary - but my piece got long enough for this diary.
Rather than talk about earned versus unearned income, I suggest to think about taxation of surplus capture (or appropriation). Bear with me.
The basic story in the economy theory is how labour and capital (material and financial) and real estate (land and accommodation) cooperate nicely to produce more wealth. The big problem which is sometimes abused but more often vulgarly ignored is distribution of the newly produced wealth.
Classical economists broadly agreed that generally labor is at the most disadvantageous position, as its wages depend on labor market competition and bargaining power, not ion the surplus produced. We are returning to the times when labor rewards are disgustingly skimpy indeed.
Sure, some highly skilled labor is still richly rewarded, sometimes out of proportion to produced value - think of football (and other sports) star contracts that did turned out delusional. But generally, the impact of globalization was harsh on labor wages.
Capital earns interest, and Henry George argued that received interest reflects capital competition as well. However, financial capital is literally dictating economic policies today. The contracts they set in recent boom times are out of proportion with respect to the production of real wealth in these crisis times. The crisis even gives them reasons to raise the interest rates. There were collecting most of produced surplus in good times, and now they are ripping societies bare to work harder to compensate their investments fully and beyond.
Real estate is earning rent - the old historical privilege. Henry George argues that land rent takes basically all the surplus of economic production, as the rents are set to leave only marginal utility choices to the labour and capital. It is normal again that rent takes 30-50% of income from the masses.
Payments for energy supply, even telecommunication services and transportation can be considered as rent as well - because of limited competition outright natural monopolies, universally privatized only recently. Copyright is a form of rent (as exclusive compensation) as well.
What is taxation? I would say, historically taxation is quite synonymous to rent. Particularly in feudal societies, the government is nothing but supreme rentiers. In the democratic societies of the 20th century, the public government was agreeably an exclusive rentier as well - but the forgotten argument is that this exclusive rentier had quite other interests than pure profit, and arguably, it represented those interests rather competently. At least until certain government "skeptics" took over it.
Following this overall logic, the public governments today is just a facade of actual governors - still large-scale rentiers, if we only include financial capital services as "rent". To most of the people, the overwhelming payments are the various rents above rather than nominal taxation.
But I have to return to the main point: What would be the right distribution of the produced welfare surpluses (if any)? The way the surpluses are distributed now is the following:
The labor gets nothing whatsoever, except some high skill individuals winning inordinate contracts. Ever more predominantly, laborer wages barely cover their own subsistence. The produced material value is not directly or proportionally reflected in wages.
Most directly, the surpluses become the property of corporations and shareholders (and the shareholder "union representatives" - management boards). That is the institutionalized and legally enforced setting throughout the world.
As usual, the real estate gets its rewards indirectly, through rent and pricing of accommodations of various affluence levels. The golden age here was surely just 5-6 years ago, where you could sell your property for unseen premiums.
But the big winners of the boom-and-bust cycle are definitely some (not all) big financial institutions. Unlike spectators of K1 fights, they got actually paid to indulge in supporting bubble bid clashes. Even if they suffer losses of not realizing their multi-digit derivative scores, they are basically taking over the world: dictating policies and payments, keeping up obligation scores, claiming foreclosed securities. No matter if new surpluses are going to be produced.
So what can I say about justification of the whole system and current developments in particular? At the very least, taxation burden should fall on those who actually get the surplus, not on those who only produce with just a competitive compensation. Adam Smith had strong arguments against taxing labor. Also, labor itself is not any surplus individually; someone needs to work for a surplus, right? But capital is a surplus almost by definition - so here I would disagree with the classical economists, especially given modern practices of capital compensation.