Tuesday, May 28, 2013

What Companies Actually Pay in Taxes

Just a quick link to document the amount of taxes companies actually pay.  The corporate tax rate in the US is pretty high.  35%.  Conservatives point to this like it explains our economic problems, and if only we'd reduce it we'd be in better shape.  But this is a nominal rate, not an actual rate.  You may have heard recently about how Apple, one of the most profitable companies in the world, manages to pay such a low amount in taxes.  Jon Stewart skewers them here, making a pretty good point as they complain about our complicated and difficult tax code.  It's not poor people that have created this complexity.  This is the result of corporate lobbying efforts.

Anyway, it looks like the total tax rate for companies in the Fortune 500 is 29.1% over the last 6 years.  This is all taxes, including state, local, and everything spent to governments in other countries.  So the federal US rate of 35% is very misleading.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Wealth Inequality in the US

Just a well done and informative visualization.

Milton Friedman's Awesome Idea - Guaranteed Minimum Income

Milton Friedman famously said "If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in 5 years there'd be a shortage of sand."  Of course I wouldn't go that far, but there's an element of truth to it.  We do sometimes see government programs initiated with a stated purpose subsequently perverted because the players involved have incentives that don't really align with the overall goal.  I'd point to the military as a perfect example.  The stated goal is to provide security.  But what they do more often than not actually increases the security threat.  The military establishment isn't incentivized to create a peaceful world.  If the world was safe they'd be out of a job.

We see some of that same dynamic in the implementation of welfare.  We have to have regulators making sure the recipients aren't on drugs, administering expensive drug screening.  Instead of cash we administer a food stamp program to make sure recipients don't buy the wrong things.  Our goal is to reduce poverty and suffering.  But for the administrators their incentive is to sustain a bureaucracy that keeps them employed.  What if the money spent on that bureaucracy was directly applied to people in poverty?  How much abuse would we really see if we simply trusted the people in poverty and offered direct cash transfers with no strings attached?

Milton Friedman long ago suggested a "negative income tax".  One of the reasons he loved it is there's no new bureaucracy required.  We already have the IRS.  Everybody has to file their taxes anyway.  And monitoring income/collecting revenue is one thing we already know the government does pretty well.  So it's pretty simple.  Suppose you set a threshold of $10K per person.  If you make less than $10K the government tops you off to where you reach $10K.  Cash.  Do what you want with it.  If you choose to spend it poorly, that's your choice and you are the one that deals with the consequences.

A lot of people hear that and they think it's pretty wild.  These people are just going to run out and get high or drunk, pop out babies to get a larger share of money, and in other ways abuse it.  That sounds kind of plausible.  But is it true?  What's being suggested here is you treat people like adults.  Trust them to know what is in their own best interest.  As Milton Friedman would recognize, people tend to understand what is in their own best interest and more readily spend money wisely than a government official that might choose on your behalf.  The official doesn't have to endure the consequences of a poor choice.  The person receiving the money does, so he'll think about how he spends money carefully.  Should we treat people like adults?

I learned recently that experiments have been tried.  Here's a test case in India. This is a little different from what Friedman is suggesting because in this case it's actually guaranteed money.  You can earn more if you like.  It doesn't top you up to a certain value.  But the results are informative.  It's for a poor village so the subsidy amounted to $3.65 per month for an adult.  Prior income transfer programs were conditional and this led to corruption and inefficiency.  It was estimated that of the total money set aside for conditional programs, only 27% reached the people in need after bureaucrats and corruption had eroded the money away.  Take a look at what happened with this unconditional program.  Women became empowered to express their opinions, knowing that starvation wasn't a threat.  Workers felt comfortable asking for more money, which employers ultimately granted.  People are going to school longer.  It was so successful the government is considering expanding it dramatically, and even neoliberals are happy about it because it allows the government to project a larger reduction in overall government expenditures.  Less social problems leads to further cost reductions in other spending domains.

Well, that's a poor country.  What about first world nations?  This article discusses two tests, one in Britain and the other that was attempted in the 70's in Canada.  Senator Hugh Segal discussed the Canadian experiment in more detail here.  A family of 5 was guaranteed a minimum income of $18K in a particular town in Manitoba, which happened to be a farming town.  $18K is in today's dollars.  The results were documented but the data stayed in boxes for decades.  The program was ended as different governments came about and different policies were pursued, but recently the data was exhumed and evaluated.  The results were spectacular.

All of the fears you see expressed by those that oppose government handouts did not materialize.  Overall working hours barely changed.  They did drop just slightly because some mothers did stay home with their children (which itself is a potential social benefit that will be realized years down the road), but overall not much change (maybe people generally prefer to make more than $18K/yr).  People stayed in school longer.  This was a farming community and poorer parents had a tendency to pull their kids out of school early for harvest, particularly if it was a tougher harvest with less favorable prices.  Parents left their kids in school longer knowing that if the harvest was bad they would be covered.  When the harvests ended up being OK anyway of course less subsidy was required.  Crime rates dropped, meaning in the long run you'd expect a reduced prison population, a reduced need for lawyers and judges to administer rulings.  Health care costs plummeted.  Possibly happier people that worry less are less prone to accidents?  People that can afford preventative treatment less frequently make use of expensive ER type services?  I'm not sure.

In any case you watch the talk above from Hugh Segal and you see these various benefits described.  In the end for a very small investment, in this case $17 million dollars, you achieve an enormous reduction in overall government expenditures.  No bureaucrats checking to make sure they aren't on drugs, no monitors, less police, less prisons, less judges, less lawyers, lower health care costs, and people that are much happier to boot.  Liberterians would like it because it offers more responsibility to the individual.  Liberals like it because it provides a sort of base line social safety net.

Now, if everybody would like it why hasn't it already happened?  Here's my speculation.  Consider the case of the Indian workers that extracted better conditions from an employer since they weren't desperate.  Consider the recent building collapse in Bangladesh.  If I know that tomorrow and the next day and for all days in the future I'll at least have food in my belly and a roof over my head, I'm not likely to listen to the boss when he demands I work in an unsafe building.  I'm also not going to work for him if he doesn't pay me half way decently.  If a Wal-Mart sweat shop can't find people willing to work for nothing in dangerous conditions, guess what they'll do?  They'll pay more and provide safe conditions.  Because the alternative is the work doesn't get done.  Remember, the heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune, the ones that get the largest share of the money from the work done?  They don't do anything.  The just get the money.  So if people earning wages aren't willing to sew the underwear together then the underwear won't get made, and the Waltons won't get any money.  So they'll pay.  Even if that means less profits.  Less profits is better than no profits.

So there's your resistance to this kind of a program.  For a corporation it's kind of nice to have desperate people.  Desperate people will work for nothing in frightening conditions, and that's good for profits.

It's interesting to consider which of Milton Friedman's ideas has really been implemented over the years.  The ones that are profitable are the ones that have been amplified.  Privatization, which has been implemented throughout Latin America, Russia, and elsewhere has been a huge strain for normal people and a huge boon to the wealth of the already rich.  Friedman's ideas that benefit the poor just didn't get that kind of play.  In fact helping the poor as Friedman suggests is a bit of a threat to the short term profit interest of the wealthy.  That's why Heritage and AEI are not too interested in it, even though their mentor and the evidence show that it's a great idea that works.

When We Should Ridicule Expensive Purchases

Peter Singer discusses the ridiculous expenditures of some of the rich, which are purchased not because they provide any kind of superior function, but serve merely to display wealth:

Essentially, such a person is saying; “I am either extraordinarily ignorant, or just plain selfish. If I were not ignorant, I would know that children are dying from diarrhea or malaria, because they lack safe drinking water, or mosquito nets, and obviously what I have spent on this watch or handbag would have been enough to help several of them survive; but I care so little about them that I would rather spend my money on something that I wear for ostentation alone.”

Within the article he mentions an interesting point from a 19th century philospher that noted that as social status becomes more and more tied to wealth, as opposed to say wisdom, knowledge, skill, or moral integrity, then the rich will pursue expenditures that serve no purpose other than to display that wealth.  These kinds of purchases should be ridiculed on the above grounds.

Just to briefly note, this does not apply to something like the purchase of an RV or nice car.  These are useful and the premium you pay is providing you a real functional enjoyment.  We're talking here about purchases that are exclusively for the display of wealth.  He uses the example of a watch that's actually not as good at keeping time as a cheaper alternative.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Soviet Pretext

You may have to sell [intervention or other military action] in such a way as to create the misimpression that it is the Soviet Union that you are fighting. That is what the United States has done ever since the Truman Doctrine.  Samuel Huntington

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary. H.L. Mencken

The Middle East is a vivid example, however, of a region in which, even as East-West tensions diminish, American strategic concerns remain . Threats to our interests—including the security of Israel and moderate Arab states as well as the free flow of oil come from a variety of sources. In the 1980s, our military engagements—in Lebanon in 1983-84, Libya in 1986, and the Persian Gulf in 1987-88—were in response to threats to U .S . interests that could not be laid at the Kremlin's door. The necessity to defend our interests will continue.  National Security Strategy of the United States - 1990

a Communist-dominated government in Guatemala is only 700 miles from Texas--only 960 miles, or a few hours' bomber time, from the refiners, the chemical plants, and the homes of my own Second District in Texas.  Representative Jack Brooks of Texas

WASHINGTON — With a critical congressional vote just two weeks away, President Reagan escalated his rhetoric Monday in an effort to gain support for his $100-million aid package for the guerrillas fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

With three rebel leaders at his side, Reagan told a group of conservative supporters in the Cabinet Room that defeat for the guerrillas--the so-called contras-- would create "a privileged sanctuary for terrorists and subversives just two days' driving time from Harlingen, Texas."  Eleanor Clift writing in the Los Angeles Times, March 04, 1986

I want to provide links to two commentaries related to the Soviet pretext.  In this concise summary of Cuban history we learn that while Americans are successfully driven to fear Mexicans don't always go along.  JFK enlisted the help of Mexico in resisting Cuba because Cuba was a security threat.  The Mexican diplomat replied that he couldn't do that because "If we publicly declare that Cuba is a threat to our security, forty million Mexicans will die laughing"

The second commentary is this long discussion with Chomsky that has too many critical bits of information to summarize.  Worth a read.

Asian American Poverty and School Performance

I was surprised to recently learn that poverty amongst Asian Americans is actually higher than white poverty.  What's also interesting to consider is that Asian populations are concentrated in high cost of living areas.  If you adjust the poverty measure by cost of living factors, Asian poverty is actually much higher than white poverty.

I made another interesting discovery regarding the performance of Asian Americans in school.  The stereo type is that of the High Expectations Asian Father.  Anything less than an A++ is unacceptable.  But studies discussed in this article reveal that in fact Asian parents are much more nurturing and easy going than we may realize.  Asian children and white children both react negatively to authoritarian and demanding parenting styles and positively to more laid back and loving parenting.  Asians are using more of the latter, and so their children are performing well.

Friday, May 3, 2013

What Are Right To Work Laws?

The most propagandized people are probably the people that don't recognize that they are propagandized.  They think they see propaganda for what it is, oblivious to how they have been manipulated.

I know I'm deceived and misled in ways that I don't even know.  But it feels good to sometimes make a discovery and break at least a little of the manipulation.  A few months back I learned, thanks to Noam Chomsky, that right to work laws were not what I thought they were.  I heard him say it but could hardly believe it, and wanted to check.  I have done that and yeah, it looks like he's right.  Here's one source.  Economist Dean Baker explains.  It's not what you think it is.

Most people think that it means you have a right to work for a company outside the union.  You can't be compelled to join the union.  Wrong.  You already have a right to work outside the union.  Any company can hire anybody that's not part of the union.  So what do right to work laws do?

What they do is compel unions to represent workers even if workers don't pay dues.  Whatever benefits the union successfully negotiates, workers are entitled to them as well as other benefits the union offers.  But instead of paying for this service, right to work laws compel the unions to provide it without compensation.  And it's not just the negotiated compensation benefits.  If a worker has a dispute with the employer the union is obligated to represent that employee even if he doesn't pay union dues.  He can't be treated differently than a union paying member.  The union must work without compensation, kind of like slavery.

That's not very free market, is it?  You'd think Republicans would allow a union or any organization to charge a fee for the service they provide, and anyone can opt in or out freely.  But it doesn't work that way.  It's free markets and tough love for you, the poor, the regular people.  For the owners, the richest in the world, it's nanny state.