Wealth and Taxes

Milton Freedman, the renowned Chicago economist, died yesterday at the age of 94. His monetary and free-market ideas have strongly influenced US and world economic policy for the past quarter century. However, the most recent US elections suggest that there may be mood shift taking place.

Currently, the US government spends about 25% of the gross domestic product (GDP) and obtains most of it through taxes and not an insignificant portion through borrowing. The current cost of Social Security is about 4.2% of GDP and is projected to rise to 6.3% by 2030. Medicare’s annual cost currently represents 2.5% of GDP but is rising very rapidly and is projected to pass Social Security expenditures in 20 years and reach 11% by 2080. You can find all of this information and more at http://www.socialsecurity.gov. Thus unless the US starts to curtail benefits and spending or increases taxes it is headed for a budget crisis.

The argument by the free-marketeers is that we need to go to some form of personal savings accounts, so instead of contributing to the government’s social security system, you save for your retirement yourself. The program would be modelled after the 401(K) tax deferred retirement plan, in which companies instead of providing a defined benefits pension plan would match contributions to the employee’s own 401(K) plan. This then transfers the risk from the employer and government onto the individual.

The idea of Milton Friedman and his followers is that the government should reduce both spending and taxes and the result will be higher economic growth and prosperity for all. It is probably true that lowering taxes does help to increase the wealth of those already well off. However, there is a huge dissipative drag on wealth creation and unless you are above some threshold, extra income probably just goes into expenses or pays down some debt.

For most of the population, the largest expense is housing. The value of a house and rent is mostly just market value, so if the market is tight then any increase in income probably just gets manifested in higher real estate prices. There is an argument that one of the consequences of women entering the job force was that houses became more expensive. While everyone seems to think that real estate is a great investment (and maybe it would be if you bought rental property), you cannot realize any financial gain until you sell and unless you plan on downsizing or moving someplace where real estate value is lower, you won’t see the returns as extra income for wealth generation.

The two other major and rapidly growing expenses for the average person are healthcare and college tuition. There is lots of talk about how to reduce costs but I think the increase in cost is real. Thirty years ago, there were limited medical tests and treatments. There were no MRI’s, PET scans, costly medications especially for chronic conditions and so forth. For those who have access to good health care, the increased cost is probably worth it. Likewise, in the past universities needed little more than books, blackboards and chalk. Now there are computers, wireless internet, shuttle buses to drive students home, extra security for dormitories, 24 hour gyms, and so forth.

The commonality between healthcare and education is that they are necessarily collectively run institutions. The choice is whether to run these privately or publicly. If the choice is to go private, then public funding can be reduced and the cost savings can be returned to the tax payers who must then pay for these services themselves. However, the likely result is that you only get the service you can afford. A tax cut leading to an increase of 10% or 20% in income makes a huge difference if you have a large income but very little if you don’t.

If we decide to fund these and other services publicly then we’ll need to raise taxes. The problem is that there is a ratchet effect. With the real estate bubble of the past five years, half the population has bought houses they can barely afford and the other half has cashed out the increased value of their house in home equity loans and spent it. The result is that even a small increase in taxes could hurt a lot of families. So if there is a tax increase, the only viable way of doing so is to only tax those that can afford it.