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October 28th, 2019

↳ Institutions

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RELATIVE DUTIES

The origins of American tax policy

Tax reform is at the forefront of contemporary policy debate. US citizens pay taxes at lower rates than their European counterparts, and a growing number of researchers agree that progressive taxes on wealth and income have the potential to rectify inequality. The historically less progressive nature of American tax policy is commonly explained as a product of the colonies' early opposition to "taxation without representation," as well as the large population of immigrants, the absence of traditional aristocracy, and the ubiquity of "country party republican" ideology which characterized the country's formation.

In an essay accompanying the publication of her 2006 book, historian ROBIN EINHORN introduces a new factor into the debate: the impact of domestic politics around slavery on early American state-building. From the piece:

"Americans are right to think that our anti-tax and anti-government attitudes have deep historical roots. Our mistake is to dig for them in Boston. We should be digging in Virginia and South Carolina rather than in Massachusetts or Pennsylvania, because the origins of these attitudes have more to do with the history of American slavery than the history of American freedom. In 1776, Congress was talking about slavery because its members were framing a national government for the new nation—what would become the Articles of Confederation. Trying to figure out how to count the population to distribute tax burdens to the various states, the members inevitably faced the problem of whether to count the population of enslaved African Americans. Since slaves were 4% of the population in the North and 37% of the population in the South, this decision would have a huge impact on the tax burdens of the white taxpayers of the northern and southern states.

Slaveholders developed three solutions to this general problem. First, they tried to guarantee that they dominated the legislative process by manipulating the representation rules. Second, they demanded weak governments that would make few of the decisions that provoked discussions of slavery. Third, they insisted on constraining the tax power through constitutional limitations on its use. Yet the real slaveholder victory lay in a fourth strategy—persuading the nonslaveholding majorities that the weak government and constitutionally restrained tax power actually were in the interests of the nonslaveholders themselves. Slaveholders persuaded many of their contemporaries that expansions of slavery are expansions of 'liberty,' constitutional limitations on democratic self-government are defenses of 'equal rights,' and the power of slaveholding elites is the power of the 'common man.' In the topsy-turvy political world we have inherited from the age of slavery, the power of the majority to decide how to tax became the power of an alien 'government' to oppress 'the people.'"

Link to the essay, and link to a 2000 academic article by Einhorn which presents the argument in greater historical detail.

  • "The growth in cash transactions was critical to the evolution of the modern income tax. Because the market's cash nexus permitted more and more individuals to derive a greater portion of their income and wealth from the sale of their labor services, lawmakers were able to more easily measure and tap the growing tax base. Consequently, the national tax structure began to shift away from a reliance on indirect levies, namely import duties and excise taxes on alcohol and tobacco, toward more direct and graduated taxes on income and wealth transfers." Ajay Mehrotra looks at the economic developments behind the passage of the 16th Amendment in 1913. Link.
  • In a new paper, Lucy Barnes links tax progressivity to the strength of capital-labor coalitions in European countries prior to World War I. Link.
  • A 2017 paper by Raymond Fisman, Keith Gladstone, Ilyana Kuziemko, and Suresh Naidu offers the first ever evidence on the taxation preferences of US citizens, finding that Americans are more likely to support taxes on wealth than on savings. Link. See also this 2016 paper by Naidu, Felipe González, and Guillermo Marshall on the role of slave property rights in promoting early American economic development. Link.
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February 23rd, 2019

Grievous Plans

NO SHORTAGE

New evidence on the relationship between skills and labor supply

More than a decade after the financial crisis of 2008, median household incomes have stagnated at their pre-2008 levels, and global economic growth is expected to decline further from what is already a historic low. While the unemployment rate has rebounded, part time, service, and temporary work remain the principal drivers behind labor market growth. Weak recovery from the crisis has been widely attributed to the “skills gap”; commentators and policymakers alike hold that quality jobs are there, but Americans are simply not qualified to perform them.

At the American Economic Association’s most recent conference, ALICIA SASSER MODESTINO, DANIEL SHOAG, and JOSHUA BALLANCE provide evidence against this view. Using a proprietary database of more than 36 million online job postings, they show that employers increased skill requirements in states and occupations which experienced larger increases in the unemployment rate. Their findings suggest that it wasn’t a shortage of skills which weakened labor markets, but rather the ubiquity of qualified applicants which drove employers to raise hiring standards. By testing employer responses to an influx of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, the authors are able to confirm this mechanism:

"As a source of exogenous variation in the availability of skilled workers, we make use of a natural experiment resulting from the large increase in the post-9/11 veteran labor force following troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan... Panel A of Table 5 demonstrates that there is a strong, significant, and positive relationship between the sharp increase in the supply of returning veterans and the rise in employer skill requirements for both education and experience."

This is among the first pieces of empirical evidence which suggests that employer skill requirements are driven, in part, by labor supply. Link to the conference webpage, where a full version of the paper is available for download.

  • As early as 2011, Lawrence Mishel argued against analysts who asserted that the unemployment crisis was structural, proposing instead that the economy was experiencing a crisis of demand. Link.
  • In his most recent book, LSE anthropologist David Graeber examines the relationship between skill and value, questioning why jobs which produce the most social value tend to be categorized as unskilled, consequently earning lower wages. Link to Graeber's widely acclaimed essay from 2013 that first outlined his argument, and link to the Google preview of his new book.
  • In a report for the Roosevelt Institute, Marshall Steinbaum and Julie Margetta Morgan argue that the 'skills gap' narrative is inconsistent with student debt crisis: "Although the country’s populace is becoming more educated, each educational group is becoming less well paid." Link.
  • Paul Osterman wrote an accessible overview of the debate for The Atlantic in 2014: “The claim that a shortage of skilled workers has exacerbated inequality has gained traction but it is not supported by the data… For instance, while 38 percent of manufacturing firms require math beyond simple addition, subtraction, and multiplication, the type of math employees need to be able to handle are standard features of a good high school education and part of the curriculum for most community-college students…Nearly 65 percent of businesses report they have no vacancies whatsoever, and another 76.3 percent report they have no long-term vacancies…” Link.
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