Larry Summers tells politicians to listen to their populist mandate and manage it wisely as they search for a way to distribute income more equitably, and he encourages corporations to cooperate. "The place to start," he says, "is by restoring the progressivity of the tax system":
Only fairness will assuage the anxious middle, by Lawrence Summers, Commentary, Financial Times (free): ...Coming from very different parts of the country and very different political perspectives, the new members of Congress have in common that they have all heard from the anxious middle class. They feel under enormous pressure to respond not just to the economic insecurity that middle-class voters feel, but also to voters’ resentment at what they see as disproportionately prospering corporate elites. If the new Congress sees itself as having a mandate for anything in the economic area, it is for policies that “stand up” for ordinary Americans against the threat they perceive from corporate and moneyed interests.
These populist impulses have roots much deeper than campaign rhetoric. In the past, real wages and corporate profitability have moved together... The unique feature of the current expansion is the divergence between the fortunes of capital and the fortunes of labour. While workers normally receive about three-quarters of corporate income, ... the Economic Policy Institute has calculated that, since 2001, labour has received only about one-quarter of the increase ..., as real wages have failed to keep pace with productivity growth. ...
These economic and political trends are and should be of great concern to the business community as well as to policymakers. They have led to populist policy proposals that cut against the grain of the market system by, for example, limiting free trade agreements, restricting outsourcing or limiting the ability of successful companies to expand.
The track record of such populist proposals is dismal. They rarely achieve their objectives and come with huge collateral costs. ... Yet it would not be a sufficient response for business or government simply to explain why populist policies would be counterproductive and to suggest ... a “stay the course” strategy, perhaps with increased attention to the displaced. If the anxious middle’s concerns about fairness are this serious when the unemployment rate is 4.4 per cent, they will be far greater whenever the economy next turns down.
This puts a premium on finding measures that go with ... the market system while also responding to concerns about fairness. The place to start is by restoring the progressivity of the tax system – an area where much can be accomplished before considering changes to the rate structure.
It is neither fair nor efficient to audit disproportionately the tax returns of those in the bottom half of the income distribution at a time when most of the $500bn tax gap comes from those with high incomes. There is no policy justification for allowing the erosion of corporate income tax through pervasive use of corporate tax shelters and manipulation of transfer price rules. Not only does this cost the government revenue, it also puts undue competitive pressure on companies that want to meet obligations to their workers.
Much more can done in a range of areas, from disclosure of executive compensation, to ensuring that the government leverages the volume of its purchases, to making financing of education at every level more equitable, to making sure that businesses continue to take responsibility for their workers’ healthcare costs.
When, as now, concerns become sufficiently serious, those with bad ideas always win out over those with no ideas.
John Kennedy famously challenged Americans: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” In the years ahead, this question will be put with increasing force to US corporations. A great deal depends on the vigour with which it is answered.