New Issue Drops!

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Our September/October issue is at the printers and has been sent to digital subscribers!  Here’s the p. 2 editors’ note:

Cliffs, Seesaws, and Leaps

The numbers are certainly scary. Key economic indicators in the current crisis—a second-quarter GDP decline at an annual rate of 30%, a drop in employee compensation at an annual rate of 20%, and a contraction in real personal consumption of nearly one quarter—are on the scale of the Great Depression. But as Alejandro Reuss shows in this issue’s cover story, even decreases on this scale could be managed without widespread hardship, if it weren’t for the staggering inequality in U.S. society and the refusal of ruling elites to take measures to help people who are struggling. As Reuss puts it: “Some people live, in effect, far away from the cliff’s edge, and can bear a decline in their incomes without too much difficulty. But many live dangerously close to the precipice—not just during crises but under the ‘normal’ conditions of U.S. capitalism.” There has been a massive government response, including spending in the trillions of dollars, but much of it has gone to bail out companies, and the stimulus payments and expansions of unemployment insurance—what’s kept the economy going—won’t likely continue, because employers don’t want them to. In this issue’s cover illustration, the U.S. working class teeters at—or over—the edge of the cliff, but the ruling class controls the seesaw.

This issue’s two other features delve into the precariousness of U.S. workers in more detail. Journalist Julian Jacobs looks at the huge overhang of private debt that is likely to make the economic crisis worse, especially for low-income workers who are more likely to have high levels of household debt. And economist David McClough’s examination of “hero pay”—the way private employers are supposedly rewarding essential workers in the pandemic—shows how those wage increases, which are as temporary as the public pandemic aid, have to be understood in the context of employers’ power over workers. As long as workers’ income is linked to employment, and employers are able to keep government from providing alternatives, workers will remain on the edge.

Reuss proposes solutions to workers’ economic subordination, as a way of de-linking income from employment, de-linking access to basic goods from income, and de-linking employment and wages from capitalist profits. The workers’ movement should demand job security guarantees, a guaranteed annual wage, direct government benefits (instead of routing them through employers), direct employment (e.g., through a federal job guarantee), and workers’ control of production (via worker-owned and -managed co-ops). All these demands have historical precedent, and many of them have been on the political agenda recently (and in the pages of Dollars & Sense).
Such demands are anathema to capitalists and their politician and media allies, which is as it should be, since they threaten their power. The organizing and actions that would make it possible to achieve these demands are the subject of a future installment of Reuss’s ongoing series, “Coronavirus, Capitalism, and the Workers’ Movement.”

But in this issue’s Active Culture, journalist Abdul Malik shows what it might take, in his account of the recent brief wildcat strike by NBA players and its spread to several other North American professional sports leagues. The strike was in direct response to the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., but it’s important to appreciate that this strike was not just symbolic: it built on years of organizing, from Colin Kaepernick to Black Lives Matter, and the spread of the strike to other leagues, including Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, and the Women’s NBA, shows that this was about workers’ power. As Malik puts it: “… the fundamentals of what led to this moment—a problem, management’s inability to address this problem, difficult conversations on the shop floor, and a flashpoint that led to a total work stoppage—are repeatable in every workplace and in every sector.”

This is the kind of organizing and action that could allow U.S. workers to leap from the edge of the cliff, and safely arrive on the other side of the chasm, where we can enjoy an economy that is beyond inequality and economic subordination.

Also in this issue: John Miller on Joe Biden’s version of the Green New Deal, Steve Pressman’s review of Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman’s latest book, and more!

From Germany to America: A Dialog on Inequality

By Polly Cleveland

At a coffee break between sessions at the annual History of Economics Society meeting, I chatted with D___, a tall, blond young woman, a professor of political science at a German university. On hearing that I work on inequality, she immediately challenged me.

D: “I don’t believe in equality. Inequality is just a statistic, a side effect. What’s relevant is how people actually live. What matters are policies to improve citizen’s wellbeing, like health or education, not policies to reduce inequality.

P: But aren’t those statistics useful in identifying those societies that are or are not doing a good job providing those services? After all, there are many statistical studies showing that more equal societies have grown faster and have a higher GDP per capita.”

D: No. Inequality statistics are just an artifact. They don’t mean anything. We could all be perfectly equal in extreme poverty, like we were in East Germany. [Obviously before she was born.] Is that what you want?”

P: In the United States, our Congress just passed a new tax law reducing income taxes for the rich and for large corporations.  That will surely lead to reduced services and other benefits to poorer people.

D: Well, what do you want? A flat tax? The same tax on each person? That would be a perfectly equal tax.

P: A flat tax would be regressive because it would take a higher percent of the income of poor people—if they could pay it at all. How about a flat percentage tax on wealth? Since wealth is much more unequal than income, that would be more progressive even than an ideal progressive income tax.

D: That’s not the point. We need to focus on ordinary citizens’ wellbeing. If we do that, the rest will take care of itself.

P: OK, how about a basic income grant, that is, the same sum paid monthly to every citizen of a country, man woman and child, rich and poor. A large enough sum to provide a modest living. That idea has become very popular lately. It is being promoted by some Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs.

D: No, I don’t think that’s a good idea. People should contribute to society. Basic income would give people bad incentives. They would take it easy.

P: Wait a moment, there’s a difference between basic income with no strings attached, and public assistance money. Here and I assume in Germany, public assistance is phased out as people earn more income. What’s amazing is that some people who receive assistance keep on working even though they lose income. The dignity of holding a job is very important.

D: Well you may be right about that, especially in Germany.

P: In the 1970s there was a guaranteed minimum income experiment run for five years in Manitoba, Canada. Recipients received additional income which—as with public assistance—was phased out as they earned more. A few years back Evelyn Forget, who’s here at the conference, analyzed the data. She found that only new mothers and teenagers worked substantially less. The teenagers became more likely to finish school, presumably due to less pressure to support their families. New mothers and school age teenagers are just the people you’d want to stay home. Remember, this was not a fixed basic income, but a guaranteed minimum with a sharp phase-out at 50% or more effective tax.

D: Still, you have to make a choice. Do you want equality of opportunity or equality of outcome? You can’t have both.

P: Actually, I think you can, sort of. A basic income grant, plus the public services we expect in a modern society—health, education, pensions, security, justice –including protection from unfair practices like monopolies—those should guarantee a rough equality of opportunity. Above that, it should be OK for people to earn high incomes by hard work, talent, or even luck. But you need progressive taxes to finance the system.

Whoops, just as I was getting to the punch line, the elevator arrived to take us downstairs to the next sessions. I would have said that as Adam Smith wrote in the Wealth of Nations (1776), taxes should be proportional to benefits received—a notion more radical than any proposed by today’s leftists. Chief among benefits received, Smith included government protection of title to land, in an era when some 2% owned most of the land in England. The tax he favored was a tax on the value of that land, a tax that would capture the “rent” or unearned income England’s “great proprietors” gained from the mere title to land granted and protected by the king. England had a land tax, but at low rates and poorly administered. The French “Philosophe” reformers whom Smith visited in Paris is 1766 advocated land taxes, as did the next generation of economists such as David Ricardo.

A hundred years later, in 1879, the American economist and radical reformer Henry George took Smith’s idea and ran with it. In his world-wide bestseller Progress and Poverty, George argued that all taxes should be replaced with taxes on land values only, and the revenues used for public purposes like schools and infrastructure (including public bath houses!). This was a perfectly practical proposal: property taxes then and now are assessed on land and buildings valued separately. In the heyday of George’s influence in the late 19th and early 20th century, assessors just left out the buildings and raised the rate on land to make up the difference.

Now almost 140 years later, as support for basic income has grown, some advocates have made the obvious connection: why not finance basic income with a land tax? That squares the circle, doesn’t it? Equality of opportunity at the bottom via a basic income grant, financed by a tax that limits inequality of outcome at the top.

That might be too theoretical for my pragmatic German acquaintance. She’s right, though, that we need to be more specific in talking about inequality.