The Big Tradeoff

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Oct 1, 2010    •    3420 Views

During the 2008 presidential campaign, when asked who is rich, John McCain jokingly said the dividing line was $5 million while Barack Obama said $150,000. Now, referring to proposed tax legislation, President Obama says that a family earning $250,000 is rich and should not get a Bush tax cut extension.

Some history: The year was 2001 and the nation was in a recession when the Congress passed the largest tax reductions in 20 years. Impacting such areas as income, estate, and capital gains taxes, selected parts of the law were scheduled to expire on December 31, 2010.

Here we are and what to do? Taxes are all about income redistribution. Economist Arthur Okun has said that we should consider Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff. If we promote equality, we will have more income redistribution through taxes, more fairness, and a common living standard. However, economic efficiency will suffer and our economic pie will grow more slowly. By contrast, economic competition leads to more efficiency, more entrepreneurial energy, more economic growth and a bigger pie. And, is it fairer to be able to keep more of what you earn?

Yes, there are countless other issues. They include the deficit, income inequality, innovation, the role of government, defining who is rich, and the unemployment rate. But still, I wonder whether it all comes down to the side you take for “the big tradeoff”.

The Economic Lesson

One way to look at U.S. income distribution is a Lorenz Curve. Created by statistician Max Lorenz, the Lorenz Curve divides the total number of U.S. families into 5 equal groups. Then, Lorenz used coordinates to show how much of the total income each fifth of families earns. For example, on a graph a dot at (20,20) would mean that 20% of all families received 20% of the income. Continuing the same idea, we could place a dot at (40,40), (60,60), (80,80) and (100,100). The result would be a straight line reflecting totally equal income throughout that society. Displaying inequality, the actual U.S. curve for 2007 is bowed to the right.

Arthur Okun said that when we try to affect income inequality by taxing the more affluent, we have a “leaky bucket” problem. Assume, for example, that the “rich” pay a $100 tax. Society will benefit from less than $100 because of administrative distribution costs and skewed spending incentives.


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