Estate

This one is for my students—and everyone else who is unaware of exactly how the current estate tax works and who is affected.

As it is now, the estate tax affects a tiny group of very wealthy Americans, applying only when someone leaves assets worth more than $5.49 million to their heirs. Together, parents can leave $11 million to their children without paying a penny in estate taxes. Thus, according to 2016 data from the Internal Revenue Service, only 5,219—or 0.2 percent of the total—left estates large enough to qualify for the tax.

The total assets in those estates (the left column of the chart above) amounted to $107.8 billion, consisting mostly of stock, bonds, and other business assets. (The rest was cash, real estate, and art.) Of that total, only $2.7 billion—or 2.7 percent—consisted of “farm assets,” that is farm land and other assets used in conjunction with a farm or agricultural business.

After all the adjustments were made (including debts and fees), the taxable estates (the center column) were reduced to $65 billion.

And the taxes on those estates (the right-hand column) amounted to only $18.3 billion.

So, we’re talking about a gross tax rate of only 17 percent on the estates of only 5,219 people, which represents only 0.2 percent of the Americans who died in 2016.

The heirs of the very small group of wealthy people like them are the only ones who will benefit from current Republican plans to repeal the estate tax.

distribution

Liberals have a problem: the kinds of redistribution they advocate and support just doesn’t do a lot to fundamentally alter the profoundly unequal distribution of income in the United States.

Consider the chart above, which illustrates the cash-income effects of the U.S. tax system (with dark colors marking the pre-tax distribution of income and the lighter colors the post-tax distribution). The results are quite meager: in 2014, the share of the top 1 percent (blue lines, measured on the right) was only lowered from 20.2 percent to 17 percent, while the share of the bottom 90 percent (plum lines, measured on the left) rose from 53 percent to just 59.2 percent.

So, even after all the tax-based redistributions are completed, the top 1 percent still ends up with a larger and larger share of income—and the share left over for the bottom 90 percent continues to fall.

All of that political fighting over tax rates and government programs to ameliorate the unequalizing effects of American capitalism and that’s all we end up with.

It should come as no surprise then that Isabel Sawhill [ht: ja] concludes that changing the tax structure, even radically, won’t really change much.

Sawhill’s analysis of both the political hurdles and the limited benefits of progressives’ favorite tax-and-spend schemes is certainly accurate. Existing economic institutions produce such an obscenely unequal distribution of income in the United States that it’s difficult to envision any political feasible changes in the tax structure that will bring down inequality into a region that progressives would consider fair and just.

So, what’s the alternative? Sawhill favors “stakeholder capitalism” (or what others have called “shared capitalism”):

It means paying attention not just to shareholders but also to workers, customers, and the community. It has proven to be a successful strategy for many companies. They have showcased what can be accomplished when the private sector takes greater responsibility for helping workers—whether in the form of profit sharing, training, or providing benefits such as paid leave and flexible hours. The fact is that without such an approach, it will be difficult to achieve broadly based economic growth. It would simply require too much redistribution after the fact. We need instead to test the limits of equalizing the distribution of market incomes before taxes and benefits enter the picture.

And perhaps Sawhill and other American liberals can convince employers to become “high-road,” stakeholder employers instead of taking the “low-road” of the shareholder economy.

Perhaps. But why does Sawhill limit the discussion to the choices existing employers might or might not want to make? Why not open up the discussion to consider other ways of organizing enterprises?*

I’m thinking, for example, of worker cooperatives and other kinds of enterprises owned by workers and the communities in which they live. If we think the existing distribution of income is fundamentally unjust and redistributive efforts are generally limited and ineffective—both of which are arguments that Sawhill herself makes—then why not focus on ways of actually improving the initial distribution without requiring the assent of existing employers?

The advantage of worker- and community-owned enterprises is they include the stakeholders from the very start. The stakeholders are the ones who decide how the firms will be organized, what the workers will be paid, how the surplus funds will be allocated, and so on. And from all the existing examples we have, from Cleveland’s Evergreen to Spain’s Mondragón, the initial distribution of income would be much more equal than anything we’ve seen, not only in the past few decades, but over the entire modern history of the United States.

Then, on top of that, people might want to have a tax-based redistributive scheme—for example, to correct for differences in enterprise success, regional discrepancies, and so on. But such redistribution would be much easier and more effective than anything Sawhill and others envision for the United States today. It just wouldn’t have an enormous mountain of inequality to dismantle.

So, while I agree with Sawhill that “our failure to achieve anything close to broadly based economic growth in the United States is very troubling,” I want to expand the discussion and see a much bigger role for alternatives to capitalism in distributing the rewards to workers and the members of the communities in which they live.

That one change, in the direction of more worker- and community-owned enterprises, can serve as the basis of an economy that would produce an array of incomes that brings us much closer to an initial distribution that many progressives consider fair and just.

 

*As Penn Loh explains,

Too often “the economy” is equated with markets where corporations compete to make profits for the wealthiest 1 percent and the rest work for a wage or salary (or don’t make money at all). . .

When everything that we label “economic” is assumed to be capitalist — transactional and market-driven — then it is no wonder that we run short on imagination.

To escape this “capitalocentrism,” we need to broaden the definition of economy beyond capitalism.

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Clay Bennett editorial cartoon  Less-is-Moore.jpg

wealth-2014

The United States, as I have shown over the past week (e.g., here, here, and here), has an obscenely unequal distribution of wealth.

As illustrated in the chart above, the members of the bottom 90 percent own only 27.8 percent of total household wealth, while the bulk of the wealth is held by the top 10 percent: 43.9 percent by the top 10 to 1 percent, 18.2 percent by the top 1 to 0.1 percent, 9.4 percent by the top 0.1 to 0.01 percent, and finally 9.7 percent by the top 0.01 percent.

How do we put that grotesque level of inequality into perspective? One way is by taking a historical perspective; the other is by looking across the world today.

As it turns out, Nature (unfortunately behind a paywall) has just published a study in which the authors attempt to estimate the degree of wealth inequality in ancient societies for which we do not have written records.* What they did is collect data from 63 archaeological sites or groups of sites, used the distribution of house sizes as a proxy for wealth, and assigned Gini coefficients to each society.**

What they are able to show is that wealth disparities generally increased with the domestication of plants and animals and with increased sociopolitical scale. The basic idea is that wealth disparities cannot accumulate within lineages until mechanisms for the transmission of wealth across generations become common, as is much more likely within sedentary societies. Thus, less wealth is typically transmitted across generations in hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies than in agricultural or pastoral societies.

prehistory

As is clear from the chart above, there were huge differences in the responses of societies to these factors in the New World (North America and Mesoamerica) and the Old World (Euroasia) after the end of the Neolithic period. Much to the researchers’ surprise, inequality kept rising in the Old World while it hit a plateau in the New World. They argue that the generally higher wealth disparities identified in post-Neolithic Eurasia were initially due to the greater availability of large mammals that could be domesticated, because they allowed more productive agricultural extensification, and also eventually led to the development of a mounted warrior elite able to expand polities to sizes that were not possible in North America and Mesoamerica before the arrival of Europeans.

These processes increased inequality by operating on both ends of the wealth distribution, increasing the holdings of the rich while decreasing those of the poor.

The authors note that the highest modeled wealth Gini coefficients in their Old World sample (0.48 at around ad 1, 0.60 at around ∆6,000 in the chart above) are similar to contemporary values for the Slovak Republic (0.45) and Spain (0.58), although much lower than for China (0.73) or the United States in 2000 (0.80).

Thus, the authors conclude,

Even given the possibility that the Gini coefficients constructed here may underestimate true household wealth disparities, it is safe to say that the degree of wealth inequality experienced by many households today is considerably higher than has been the norm over the last ten millennia.

How right they are!

wealth-pyramid

According to the latest Credit Suisse Research Institute’s Global Wealth Report, the members of the global top 1 percent now own more than half (50.1 percent) of all household wealth in the world.

In terms of wealth bands, the United States has by far the greatest number of millionaires: 15.4 million, an increase of 1.1 million adults over 2016. For 2017, that amounts to 43 percent of the world total. (Japan holds second place, with only 7 percent of the world’s millionaires, a decline of 338 from 2016 to 2017.)

top pyramid
Much the same degree of concentration also occurs at the top of the pyramid. According to the Credit Suisse calculations, 148,200 adults worldwide can be classed as ultra-high net worth individuals, with a net worth above US$50 million—an increase of 13 percent (19,600 adults) during the past year.

Once again, the United States dominates the regional rankings, with 75,000 ultra-high net worth residents (51 percent), with China occupying second place with 18,100 ultra-high net worth individuals (up 3,000 on the year).

The authors of the report are clear: since the crash of 2007-08, top wealth holders benefited in particular and, across all regions, wealth inequality has risen, as median wealth declined. And their projections for 2022 suggest “more pessimistic scenarios for the immediate years ahead.”

Yes, indeed, the arc of recent capitalist history appears to be following that of millenia of prehistory, which bends toward greater inequality.

 

*The archaeological contexts sampled from the Old World range from around 11,000 to about 2,000 years ago (plus one recent set of !Kung San encampments), and in the Americas, from around 3,000 to about 300 years ago.

**The Gini coefficient (named after the Italian statistician Corrado Gini) is a measure of statistical dispersion intended to represent the distribution of income or wealth among the members of a group (e.g., a nation). Inequality on the Gini scale is measured between 0, where everybody is equal, and 1, where all the income or wealth is captured by a single person. I have expressed my own reservations about comparing Gini coefficients across countries or regions here.

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