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Thursday, July 26, 2007

David Wessel: Globalization Study Moves Past Rhetoric

While I've had issues with material on the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, and today is no exception, I want to be careful to separate what goes on there from what gets presented elsewhere in the WSJ.

David Wessel's Capital column is not on the editorial page, and it does not belong there. I don't always agree with everything he says, and I don't always disagree either, but I never get the impression that facts are twisted to sell a preconceived notion:

Globalization Study Moves Past Rhetoric, by David Wessel, WSJ: Most of the policy briefs, working papers and trade-association reports that cross a columnist's desk slide easily into the trash can or onto the read-someday pile.

But a recent study on globalization, commissioned by the Financial Services Forum, an association of the chief executives of 20 huge financial companies, ranging from American International Group and Citigroup to UBS and Wachovia, stands out.

The analysis, written by a former member of President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers, a former member of President Bush's and a former Bush Commerce Department official, says:

(1) Globalization is good for the U.S. economy. (No surprise coming from a bunch of financial firms that make money doing business across borders.)

(2) Gains from globalization aren't evenly shared. (A little surprising, but in the past couple of years, there has been a willingness among business to publicly acknowledge that economic reality.)

(3) To avoid a backlash against globalization, governments and businesses must come up with new ways to spread its benefits more widely and assist those hurt by all sorts of economic change. (Very surprising, more like a Democratic candidate's talking points than a report issued and promoted by an outfit led by Citigroup Chief Executive Charles Prince and Don Evans, the former Bush commerce secretary.

What's Going On? Business interests with a strong stake in globalization ... see rising public anxiety about globalization as a threat. And they realize that preaching the gospel of comparative advantage isn't going to win the debate.

"The mounting opposition is in response to the other side of globalization -- outsourcing of jobs, economic dislocation, anxiety and fear," the forum said ... early this year. "Making the case for trade and globalization requires...a list of specific, meaningful, practical, cost-efficient, and effective public- and private-sector responses to the reality that while the aggregate benefits of free trade and globalization are tremendous, it can sometimes bring with it painful dislocations for individuals, families, towns, regions, even entire industries." ...

Some business executives, prodded by politicians such as House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel, finally are realizing that trade-friendly Democrats will be overwhelmed by trade skeptics unless there is something tangible to offer workers worried about their livelihoods and their children's. A new Pew Global Attitudes survey finds Americans generally optimistic about the next five years, but only 31% expect their children's lives will be better than their own; Europeans are even more pessimistic. By contrast, 81% of the Chinese expect their children to do better.

The Financial Services Forum report is, in part, a response to that. The specifics are intriguing ... because they move beyond inadequate approaches such as making the failing Trade Adjustment Assistance program for dislocated workers a tad more generous.

Among the Proposals: Raise taxes on winners to share benefits of globalization more widely. Replace TAA and unemployment insurance with a big new program for displaced workers that offers wage insurance to ease the pain of taking a lower-paying job. Provide for portable health insurance and retraining. Create a way for communities to ensure their tax base against big factory closures. Eliminate tax hurdles for businesses that do what International Business Machines is proposing: Offer 50 cents for every $1 (up to $1,000 a year) that workers set aside to pay for training. ...

Grant Aldonas of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, one of the report's three authors [said] "...We are renegotiating the social contract in America, but we're letting it be done by the United Auto Workers and Delphi, and leaving a lot of others out -- including the poor and the businesses on the leading edge."

Mr. Aldonas and his co-authors, Dartmouth's Matthew Slaughter and Harvard's Robert Lawrence, ... say the U.S. need not accept as inevitable the steady widening of the gap between economic winners and losers, an inequality that threatens to produce barriers to trade, investment and immigration that will hurt U.S. prosperity. ...

Now the question is whether business will go beyond talk. As C. Fred Bergsten ... puts it: "They haven't gone to the mat and talked to Charlie Rangel and Democrats who are wavering, if not worse, and said, 'We want to support a meaningful program of wage insurance, and we'll be willing to give up some of our beloved tax breaks to pay for it.' "

One troubling sign: Although forum chief executives issued statements blessing the new report, not one has been willing to talk to a Wall Street Journal reporter about it.

One thing that bothers me about the whole inequality debate is the presumption that the winners deserve their incomes because it reflects their contribution to the firm, i.e. it is the wage that would be earned in well-functioning competitive markets, with the reward is equal to the person's marginal contribution to the firm. Thus, the analysis often begins with the idea that any tax takes away someone's hard-earned income and redistributes it elsewhere.

But for the incomes where inequality is rising most - those at the very top of the income distribution - this is a questionable claim. The idea that the salary of a CEO or hedge fund manager is set by competitive markets, or even approximately so, seems unlikely, or at least open to serious question. It should not just be assumed in these debates.

If the incomes of the winners are higher than they would be in a competitive market, then many of the arguments against taxing their "hard-earned money" melt away. For example, if a person would earn $1,000,000 in a competitive market, but because of market imperfections earns $1,200,000 instead, is it unfair to tax away the extra $200,000?

At a 33% tax rate in a competitive market, after-tax income would be $667,000, i.e. the competitive income of $1,000,000 minus 33%. At the non-competitive income of $1,200,000, it would take a tax rate of around 44% to leave the person equally well off (i.e. $1,200,000 - 44% of $1,200,000 =  approx. $667,000).

For this reason, I would argue that tax rates such as the 44% rate in this example are not as high as they might seem. Part of the tax simply levels the playing field, i.e. taxes away the income in excess of the competitive level, and the tax rate is then 33%, not 44%, on the part of income that would be earned in a competitive market.

Update: Free Exchange at the Economist has a different take on this issue.

    Posted by on Thursday, July 26, 2007 at 12:24 AM in Economics, Market Failure, Policy, Taxes | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (46)


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