James Galbraith Tells Us What Everyone Needs to Know About Inequality

By Polly Cleveland

Inequality has surged in the U.S. over the last forty years; many observers now blame the deregulation and tax cuts for the rich starting with the presidency of Ronald Reagan in 1980. In his new short book, Inequality: What Everyone Needs to Know, James Galbraith explains how this happened through the change in U.S industrial structure:

“In the early postwar period, the dominant American industrial corporation–such as General Motors, General Electric, American Telephone & Telegraph, International Business Machines–was an integrated behemoth that contained within itself not only production, but every phase of basic research, product design, and marketing that was relevant to its mission. Therefore incomes were distributed within the corporation by administrative decisions, governed by the bureaucratic imperatives and prerogatives of those in charge, and strongly responsive to the incentives of a highly progressive income tax structure. Top scientists and engineers, as well as top executives, were paid salaries, and salaries were regulated by the corporation. Tax structures also gave strong incentives for the corporation to retain profits, rather than pay them out as dividends, and to reinvest the proceeds–whether in factories or in the palatial towers that grew up in Manhattan, San Francisco, and Chicago in those years.

All of this changed with the tax “reform” movements of the 1970s and 1980s, which pushed for lower top marginal tax rates, fewer special exemptions from the tax, and for a “shareholder-value” model of corporate compensation. And a special feature of this change was that it created strong incentives to restructure the corporation itself.

“In particular, as the digital revolution came into view, the top technologists in the big corporations realized that they would be far better off if they set off on their own, incorporated themselves as independent technology firms, and then sold their output back to the companies for which they had formerly worked in salaried jobs.…

The effect of this structural transformation on the distribution of household incomes in the United States, as recorded in the tax records, is astonishing. For there were created, mainly in the 1990s, a handful of citadels of stratospheric incomes, previously unknown in the country and concentrated in the tiny handful of locations. One of these was Manhattan, the home of Wall Street and the source of finance. A second was Silicon Valley, a cluster of counties in Northern California. And the third was Seattle, Washington, and its near suburbs.”

Galbraith is describing the same phenomenon that Barry Lynn documented at length in his chilling 2010 exposé: Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction. That is, the transformation from vertically integrated firms to horizontally-integrated monopolistic trading companies, buying inputs from all over the world, squeezing both their suppliers and their customers. But Galbraith adds a new insight: not only did the postwar high-tax regime induce corporations to keep executive pay in check, it also induced them to retain profits and reinvest them in the corporation. With the 1980’s “greed is good” transformation, rates of reinvestment slowed as executives started taking more for themselves—surely helping slow the overall rate of growth.

Wait a moment! High taxes on income and profit produced more investment and growth? That’s the exact opposite of today’s Republican, and often Democratic, mantra that high taxes kill investment and growth. But the postwar taxes that tamed the corporate behemoths were in fact high marginal rates, top rates in a steeply progressive system. These were the very taxes imposed at the beginning of World War II to prevent war profiteering. These were taxes designed to capture the “unearned income” or “economic rent” of powerful corporations and wealthy individuals. It was perfectly logical for such corporations and individuals to “avoid” such taxes by investing money they would otherwise lose.

If high marginal income and profit taxes are so beneficial, is there any prospect—given the political will— of returning to such tax levels? Unfortunately, now that so many multinational corporations and wealthy individuals are registered or domiciled in tax haven countries, any simple effort to impose truly high marginal rates on profits or income will simply lead to more creative evasions, corruption (see Panama), and tax wars.

But, assuming the political will, are there other approaches? Galbraith proposes:

A much older and yet, to this day, still more promising alternative to taxing financial wealth is to tax land value, including the value of mineral and energy resources in the ground. The economic concept behind this idea is that of Ricardian rent–the argument that rents (which are inherently unproductive) flow to the owners of the fixed and non-reproducible asset, namely land. By taxing land and minerals, one reaches the least defensible forms of accumulated wealth, while at the same time doing the least to distort market decisions as between capital investment and hiring of labor. And there is another advantage: unlike financial wealth, land stays put. It exists in fixed jurisdictions with registered ownership; all the taxing authorities need to do is to send an appraiser, and then a bill. Local property taxes already work this way; however, in the United States landowner opposition to land taxes has been fierce, and many states are barred by their constitutions from levying property tax on a statewide basis. In California, notoriously, even local property taxes were capped in the late 1970s by a ballot measure strongly supported by wealthy landholding interests.

Land taxation has been for a century the program of the followers of the 19th century American economist Henry George, whose influence was vast around the world a century ago. One of his followers was the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen, founder of the Republic of China in 1911. And Maoist China, by conducting an early war against landlords, ended up having the world economy most like the Georgist program in the modern age. But instead of taxing land value, the Chinese state actually owns it, and collects the land rent for itself. By doing this, Chinese municipalities and provinces have enjoyed ample revenue from which to make capital improvements, which is why Chinese cities have been able to grow like weeds in the reform era…

To this I would add that land taxes weren’t new in China: they financed Chinese empires as early as 2000 BC. Stiff land taxes of four shillings to the pound of assessed value financed the transformation of British finance in 1688; Adam Smith deemed them “the most equitable of all taxes.” Taxes on high profits and incomes and on land values all capture unearned income, or rents, forcing taxpayers to invest productively to pay the tax.

Dead Empires: How China May Overtake the U.S.

By Polly Cleveland

“The earth is the tomb of dead empires, no less than of dead men.” Thus wrote the American economist and journalist Henry George in his 1879 worldwide bestseller, Progress and Poverty. Adam Smith had identified cooperation and specialization—“the division of labor”—as the forces that generated economic growth and prosperity. George claimed that those same forces led eventually to collapse, as monopolization of land and other natural resources directed more and more wealth into ever fewer hands. (George was nonetheless an optimist; he argued for heavy taxes on wealth and checks on monopoly—causes vigorously taken up by Progressive reformers in the early twentieth century.)

When George first wrote, the sun never set on Queen Victoria’s Empire, and looked like it never would. Yet twenty years later the British Empire was visibly faltering, plagued by bankruptcies of investments in U.S. railroads, the failure of obsolete industries, and the quagmire Boer War in South Africa. New rivals—the United States, Germany, and Russia—peered over the horizon.

Two astute observers have recently offered complementary predictions of the imminent demise of the American empire, and its replacement by China. One is historian Alfred McCoy of the University of Wisconsin, and the other is investigative journalist Barry Lynn of New America.

In The Geopolitics of American Global Decline: Washington Versus China in the Twenty-First Century, McCoy describes the Chinese strategy to break through the encircling ring of American bases to reach—and control—its markets and resources directly. As U.S. officialdom has already noted with some alarm, China is aggressively seeking to assert dominion over the South China Sea between it and Japan and the Philippines. It has been dredging landfill to create airbases on the unoccupied Spratley Islands, and has demanded that U.S. and other aircraft overflying the area obtain Chinese permission. But that’s just the eastern end. McCoy presents maps showing China’s massive investments in infrastructure to link it westward overland to the rest of the great Eurasian heartland. While U.S. railroads and bridges crumble, the Chinese are building a dense internal network of sophisticated high-speed high-volume railroads, plus oil and gas pipelines. These will connect up with transcontinental railways and pipelines, crossing Kazakhstan, reaching Moscow, and from there to Hamburg, Germany on the Baltic Sea. Another corridor will connect through Pakistan to the Arabian Sea, and yet another across Myanmar to the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, the Chinese are making huge collaborative investments with these neighbors and with willing partners in Africa and Latin America. McCoy sees the TPP as Obama’s last-ditch effort to contain China.

For years, Barry Lynn has reported on the growing power—and weakness—of multinational monopolies. The power is more obvious: higher prices, less choice, less innovation—and greater political influence. The weakness is less obvious: less investment, fewer jobs, lower wages, and restriction of manufacturing to dependence on a small number of cheap, mostly foreign suppliers.

Here’s where China comes in, as Lynn reports in The New China Syndrome: American business meets its new master. Multinational businesses, like the auto companies and computer companies, increasingly depend on China both for cheap manufacturing and for access to the growing Chinese consumer market. Lynn reports a number of instances where Chinese have intimidated multinationals into concessions on price, or ownership shares, or jobs for children of Chinese leaders. He describes an episode in which bureaucrats summoned in-house lawyers from some thirty companies, including GE, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Siemens, and Samsung, told them that half the companies were under investigation for monopoly crimes—without saying which—and  instructed them write public “self-criticisms” under threat of double or triple fines should they refuse. The great monopolies must submit to this arbitrary tyranny precisely because they have destroyed so many other sources of supply, and have so eroded consumer markets in the rest of the world.

Bill Clinton saw U.S. investment in China as a way to “a more open and free China.” What if, Lynn asks, “the extreme economic interdependence between the United States and China is not actually carrying our values into a backward and benighted realm, but accomplishing precisely the opposite — granting the Chinese Politburo ever-increasing leverage over America’s economic and political life?” And, one might add, leverage over all the other multinational host countries? That could hardly have been more obvious than in the obsequious reception given to President Xi Jinping on his recent state visit to Great Britain. The meeting sealed a series of business investments, including a deal in which Chinese investors take a one-third stake in Hinkley Point C, Great Britain’s first new nuclear plant in a generation.

So, on the one hand, as Alfred McCoy suggests, Chinese infrastructure investment and joint ventures in foreign countries increasingly constrain U.S. power from the outside. On the other, as Barry Lynn suggests, Chinese control of multinational corporations threatens U.S. power from the inside. After the British Empire collapsed in the bloodbath of World War I, it staggered on a few more years as a zombie agent of the growing American empire. (See Middle East.) That empire may in turn stagger on as the zombie agent, not of a western democracy, but of a giant nation contemptuous of our values—and with thousands of years’ experience managing empires.