"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Monday, September 05, 2005

A 1978 perspective on Jude Wanniski (who just died)

Review of The Way the World Works, by Jude Wanniski. Basic Books. 319 pp. $ 12.95.
from The Public Interest, Fall 1978:


“Reality in One Lesson”

ALAN REYNOLDS

The marvelous audacity of the title The Way the World Workswill attract some, repel others. Amazingly, it is appropriate. This actually is an attempt to explain political and economic events throughout the ancient and modern world in terms of a manage-able number of general principles. Even more remarkable, this heroic effort is frequently successful-illuminating many of the mysteries of history, from the decline of Rome to the stock market crash of 1929 and today's global stagflation.

The book is deceptively easy to read, which may cause those who associate economic wisdom with impenetrable prose mistakenly to interpret its clarity as a lack of depth. As his unsigned Wall Street Journal editorials attest, Wanniski is a master of illustration, and each piece of the political-economic model he propounds is carefully interwoven with folksy examples, then amply documented with rigorous historical evidence.

Wanniski's economic model is simply brilliant and brilliantly simple. The starting point is to examine the supply side of an economy -to ask what motivates people to add to the quantity and quality of marketed goods and services. The answer builds upon a broad definition of work as a complex combination of physical and intellectual effort. Most work is in the barter economy-housework, do-it-yourself projects, trading tasks with family or friends. Smith the carpenter and Jones the plumber will exchange services with each other in the marketplace only "when it is easier to trade their work for somebody else's in the public economy." Otherwise, Smith will fix his own sink and Jones his own kitchen cabinet, each thus depriving the other of a job.

There are enormous efficiencies in specialization and additional gains from using money to expand the scope of possible exchanges within, and even beyond, national boundaries. But entering the public economy to specialize makes the transaction visible and therefore subject to government taxes, tariffs, and regulations. When the government imposes too heavy a burden on transactions in the public economy, people drop back into the inefficient private barter economy (friends, "do=it-yourself," and casual labor for cash), or they substitute leisure for taxed income.

This brings us to the "wedge model," attributed to Professor Arthur Laffer of the University of Southern California, which explains how a variety of taxes and regulations form a wedge between what employers pay for workers and what employees ultimately receive in after-tax income. Reducing this wedge makes it cheaper for employers to offer jobs and more lucrative for employees to accept and retain jobs. A similar wedge between what business pays for capital and what suppliers of capital (investors) ultimately receive in after-tax income reduces savings, investment, and economic growth.

According to Wanniski, the practice of taxing additions to income at sharply increasing rates-the progressive income tax-has a particularly demoralizing effect on personal effort and specialization. "Workers now have less incentive to become skilled workers or foremen, foremen have less incentive to become salespeople, sales-men have less incentive to become managers, and managers less incentive to become entrepreneurs." This effect has been com-pounded by inflation, which pushes unreal increases in incomes into higher and higher marginal tax brackets, thus discouraging supply and producing the apparent paradox of "stagflation."

"The only way government can increase production," concludes Wanniski, "is by making work more attractive than non-work." The Soviet Union accomplishes this task with the least generous welfare, retirement, and unemployment benefits in the civilized world. They use the stick to replace the carrot. Western countries, however, have tended to forget the stick and tax the carrot with policies that discourage work and subsidize non-work, with the predictable result that we are getting less effort and more "leisure."

The most famous illustration of the model, the "Laffer Curve," rests on the crucial distinction between tax rates and tax revenues: "There are always two tax rates that yield the same revenues." A zero rate yields zero revenue, and so does a 100-percent rate (be-cause the taxed activity would cease). Between these extremes lies an optimal point "at which the electorate desires to be taxed." Raising tax rates beyond that point lowers both the public economy's output and the government's revenue. The optimal tax rate can be very high during war time, but high rates at other times will normally generate wholesale tax evasion and a reversion to inefficient, unspecialized barter.

A chapter on the Crash of 1929 meshes the theory with some truly original historical research. The stock market always reflects the best available information about the future course of the economy, Wanniski argues, and therefore could not have been grossly overpriced at the 1929 peak. The market's fall must instead have reflected a previously unexpected increase in the political cost of doing business (the "wedge").

Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon emerges as the principal political hero of the book for slashing back the income-tax rates several times from 1921 through 1929 (rates ranged from 4 percent to 73 percent in 1920, 0.4 percent to 24 percent in 1929) while simultaneously running budget surpluses. The much-maligned Coolidge era provided five years of 3.5-percent unemployment and 0.5-percent annual inflation-a combination that is impossible in Keynesian theory (especially with budget surpluses), and certainly unmatched in Keynesian practice.

If the Coolidge tax cuts were such a successful application of Wanniski's model, what brought on the market's crash? By sifting through newspapers of the day, Wanniski demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that the stock market crash of 1929 ensued be-cause of the growing likelihood of passage of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930. A domestic tax is "a wedge between the trading of Jones and Smith. The tariff is a wedge between the trading of Jones, a national, and Schmidt, a foreigner. The effects on commerce are precisely the same."

To make matters worse, income taxes were increased again and again during the 1930's (ranging from 4 percent to 79 percent by1936), and became particularly punitive toward people worth high incomes by virtue of their ability to add value to enterprises. The politics of the day liked employment but hated employers, a situation that wasn't really improved until another of the book's heroes, President Kennedy, cut tariffs and slashed tax rates (from a 20-percent to 91-percent range to a more moderate 14-percent to 70-percent range), while simultaneously reducing Federal spending and borrowing.

Wanniski goes too far, however, in denying that the collapse of the banking system and the related destruction of a third of the U.S. money stock had any effect in prolonging the Great Depression. "If prices could have risen by one third," he says, "there would have been no need for the banking collapse." But it was the banking collapse that produced the falling prices, and it could have been prevented.

Those of us who have labored under the accusation of employing "19th-century economics" will enjoy Wanniski's clever uses of 18th-century, classical economics to browbeat the current intellectual fashions.

Marx is accused of a fixation on economic contraction, which requires "submerging individualism into collectivism, because it is the untrammeled individual who is viewed as driving the capitalist system toward overproduction, boom and bust." Each worker is supposed to work harder in Marxist economies simply because of the ideological promise that others will do the same.
Like the Marxist model, says Wanniski, the Keynesian model is primarily a rationale for redistributing income (sharing misery) during periods of economic decline. Keynesian theory rests uneasily on "bond illusion"-people's presumed failure to recognize that an increase in government debt must require higher taxes in the future to repay or pay interest on that debt. Deficit spending just replaces present taxes with future taxes, and people will not "work for bonds, under the illusion that they can be exchanged for real goods."

If Keynesians base their theory on "bond illusion," monetarists stand indicted for peddling "money illusion"-"the notion that people will work for `money' as a form of wealth, whether or not there is anything that money can buy." Some monetarists do argue that an unanticipated inflation can briefly reduce unemployment (because prices rise faster than wages), but only until adjustments are made. Indeed, the "rational expectations" school of monetarism even goes further than Wanniski in denying illusion, since Wanniski remarks that "creditors suffer and debtors benefit by an unanticipated switch in coin by the government." If lenders never suffered even temporary money illusion, then interest rates would always be high enough to compensate for any loss of purchasing power.

The real problem, of course, is long-term contracts in a changing world. If employers agree to pay 10-percent annual wage increases for three years in the expectation of being able to raise prices by 7 percent a year, a lower than anticipated monetary inflation will toss them into a cost-price squeeze, requiring layoffs. Imperfect foresight isn't really a matter of illusion, as Wanniski suggests, any more than the stock market suffered illusion in 1929 before the news about tariffs changed so quickly.
In Wanniski's model, it would apparently make no difference if there were a 100-percent inflation one day and a 100-percent deflation the next, except insofar as it distorted the tax structure. All prices and wages not only adjust to changing money growth, but do so evenly and instantaneously. Expectations are not only rational, in the sense of incorporating each day's best information, but also perfectly correct in anticipating future policy shifts. This is a useful simplification for some purposes, notably in drawing attention to the real factors that ultimately determine long-run economic growth, but it is not sufficiently precise to erase even temporary links between money, spending, and production.

If there is a prime villain of the book, a Darth Vader, it must be Professor Nicholas Kaldor of Cambridge University. Kaldor has been a principal exponent of the notion that developing nations must impose draconian taxes in order to extract the "savings" to finance grandiose government "investments" (uneconomic steel mills and other monuments).

Wanniski traces the Kaldor theme back to mid-19th-century India, where British railroad builders plied their trade at the cost of an onerous debt burden on Indian taxpayers. Economic imperial-ism is thus nearly defined as "the exploitation of the underdeveloped world by pushing it beyond its capacity to develop, in the process burdening the masses of people in the Third World with indebtedness and taxes."

Wanniski's documentation here is devastating. We find that be-fore recent tax cuts, taxpayers in stagnant Asian countries faced 65-to 75-percent tax rates on incomes of around $7,000. In the booming Ivory Coast, marginal rates stop at 37.5 percent above $20,000, while in the similar but sluggish economy of Ghana tax rates hit 75 percent at $12,500. Anyone can pick the most troubled economies out of an extensive list by simply looking at the steepest taxes.

Economics in the real world is rarely divorced from politics, and what links the two, according to Wanniski, is the electorate's understanding of economics, which is acquired from childhood through dealings with others. "The only way an economist can know something his fellow human beings do not ... is if people them-selves do not know why they produce, distribute, and consume." It is one thing, however, to demonstrate that people understand their own economic circumstances, and quite another to claim that the electorate possesses the sorts of analytical skills and economic information needed to make political actions conform to their shared interests. Because each vote carries little weight, voters have no incentive to be as well-informed about politically determined economic issues as they are about something that affects their interests directly (such as the choice of employment or stereo components).

Some decisions nonetheless do have to be reached by political consensus: "When four people go out to dine, the wine selection requires a political decision because four tastes must be satisfied with one bottle." To solve such problems on a larger scale,the global electorate is seen pushing, at every opportunity, in the direction of systems capable of producing superior politicians. This political process has as its ultimate aim a solution to the basic economic problem that for all time has confronted the global electorate, which is the tension between income growth and income distribution.... No individual can possibly be as wise as the electorate, the consensus, in discerning the preferred tastes of all the individuals who compose the electorate.... [Every election] is the optimum reflection of the national or local interest, given the choices available to the electorate.

People know what they want, and cannot be induced to want something else, but that is not to say that politicians are not some-times mistaken or misled about the electorate's desires. When politicians lose touch with the people, the electorate is forced to find ways outside the normal political process to communicate with the politicians: revolution, religion, nationalism, and even, at times, assassination.

Unfortunately, Wanniski fails here to differentiate adequately among kinds of political action, and is left therefore with a formulation that amounts to saying that what is not upheaval is contentment.

These strained simplifications of political life are best illustrated by Wanniski's curiously charitable view of the Soviet Union's "democratic experiment." Communist systems apparently have the sup-port of their electorates, Wanniski says, "for if they did not we would expect to see more visible signs of internal dissension." But that is why such systems nationalize the means of dissent (news-papers, television, guns), so it is very difficult for outsiders-and even for other citizens-to see "visible signs" of dissension.

Wanniski's economic lessons appropriately concentrate on the political barriers to trade-tariffs and taxes-that diminish the market's efficiency in producing what is wanted. His analogy between political and economic markets would be greatly improved if it were likewise explicitly acknowledged that there are particularly formidable barriers to political "competition." These barriers make political decision making inherently less competitive and efficient than voluntary market transactions.

Still, the book offers quite a lot of anecdotal evidence that following the Laffer/Wanniski economic model is good politics-even given the great dissimilarities in traditions and expectations among people of different nations and cultures. Those who overtax the people eventually lose power, one way or another. In this sense, the political model may help to explain how the electorate pushes, albeit glacially, toward responsive government. For in the end, governments can't distribute goods and services that are not produced, or tax transactions and activities that do not take place. Production depends on the quantity and quality of work and capital, which, in turn, depend on the after-tax real rewards to productive effort and investment. When the creation and spending of money outrun production, you just get inflation. Government debt is not a source of real wealth. If The Way the World Works did nothing more than push a handful of political entrepreneurs toward such fundamental realities, as it already may have done, it would rank among the most influential books since the 1930's.


When this was published in 1978, Alan Reynolds [now a senior fellow at the Cato Institute] was Vice President of the First National Bank of Chicago, and editor of First Chicago World Report.

2 comments:

Tom said...

I went out and bought the book (The Way the World Works) on Amazon. It was an interesting albiet slow read. I especially liked the explanation of the Great Depression. I agree, however with the article herein, that the present day politics of "trickle down" economics alongside ever lower and lower tax rates only works to stimulate the economy to a point. The problem of bond illusion and money illusion has aparantly been overlooked in todays economy. (Its NOT just a Keynesian phenom) Supply-siders are thrusting us ever more into a foreign controlled bond debacle from which no amount of tax-cuts will relieve us. Thanks for telling us Uncle Milton (Friedman) that inflation (excess money supply in either bond, paper currency or SDR form) is everywhere and always a monetary phenomenon! Milton has out lived a whole host of naysayers, only to live to see that his theories will all be proved right in the end. My humble opinion. We can export inflation beyond our shores for a time, but it will come back to haunt us in a vengence. Either through a decline in the purchasing power of the US $ OR through a rise in the general level of prices, inflation by any other name is still the same!

Tom said...

I went out and bought the book (The Way the World Works) on Amazon. It was an interesting albiet slow read. I especially liked the explanation of the Great Depression. I agree, however with the article herein, that the present day politics of "trickle down" economics alongside ever lower and lower tax rates only works to stimulate the economy to a point. The problem of bond illusion and money illusion has aparantly been overlooked in todays economy. (Its NOT just a Keynesian phenom) Supply-siders are thrusting us ever more into a foreign controlled bond debacle from which no amount of tax-cuts will relieve us. Thanks for telling us Uncle Milton (Friedman) that inflation (excess money supply in either bond, paper currency or SDR form) is everywhere and always a monetary phenomenon! Milton has out lived a whole host of naysayers, only to live to see that his theories will all be proved right in the end. My humble opinion. We can export inflation beyond our shores for a time, but it will come back to haunt us in a vengence. Either through a decline in the purchasing power of the US $ OR through a rise in the general level of prices, inflation by any other name is still the same!