Ten ways to fight inequality without Piketty’s wealth tax

Step 1: Gold for everyone!
Step 1: Gold for everyone!
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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If capital is taking over the 21st century, what are we to do?

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has attracted plenty of debate over its thesis—that growing wealth inequality is an inevitable part of capitalism–but even those who find the arguments compelling aren’t necessarily on board with Piketty’s solution. Even he concedes that his proposal—new progressive taxes on net wealth—is a bit utopian. While a tax on wealth is direct, it’s politically fraught, hard to enforce, and depending on your preferred model of the economy, could slow growth.

But just as there is more than one way to skin a cat, there’s more than one way for society to push back against growing inequality. Commentators reacting to Piketty’s thesis have offered up a bevy of policy options they see as more feasible or with fewer unintended consequences.

1) Open the borders. 

African migrants sit on top of a border fence covered in razor wire between Morocco and Spain's north African enclave of Melilla during their latest attempt to cross into Spanish territory, April 3, 2014. Spain has more than doubled the strength of security forces at Melilla, after about 500 people stormed its fences in the biggest border rush for years earlier this month. Immigrants from all over Africa regularly dare the razor-wire fences of Spanish enclaves Ceuta and Melilla, which are surrounded by Moroccan territory and sea.
African migrants try to get into Spain.
Image: Reuters/Jesus Blasco de Avellaneda

By intent and necessity, Piketty’s book is focused on wealthy countries, but we know well that emerging markets are only becoming more important to the global economy. Economist Suresh Naidu notes that “if we’re aiming for politically hopeless ideas, open migration is as least as good as the global wealth tax in the short run, and perhaps complementary.” More migration would redress global inequality by giving more earning power to migrants from poor countries, while lowering capital’s share of income in wealthy countries.

2) Get rid of some intellectual property protections.


A police officer displays seized Parvon Spas capsules, a type of analgesic and anti-spasmodic, in Jammu July 28, 2009. Police said on Tuesday their men recovered 20,000 capsules from three drug peddlers during a routine search at a police check post on the outskirts of Jammu.
“Contraband” drugs in India.
Image: REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta

One of the scary ideas in Piketty’s vision is the rise of a new class of rentiers who earn their money not by working but simply from the capital returns on their assets. One solution is to get rid of a major source of modern rents—patents on software and pharmaceuticals. The case against software patents has been made, even by software companies, as a way to stop wasteful patent trolling and unleash innovation. For medicines, that an Indian factory can make the same drugs far more cheaply than an American factory, with the only difference being patent protection, means there is already pressure on the current system. While drug companies say the research that leads to new cures wouldn’t be possible without restrictive patents, economists wonder if pure competition wouldn’t do the same job.

3) Cut taxes. 

The mosaic on the the patio of the South Beach mansion formerly owned by fashion designer Gianni Versace in Miami Beach, Florida July 23, 2013. Versace spent $33 million renovating the house, which features a 54-foot mosaic pool lined with 24-karat gold, according to Fisher Auction Company. The mansion will be offered for sale at an auction on September 17, 2013.
The wealth Americans are already taxing.
Image: Reuters/Gaston De Cardenas

This one is actually stolen from Piketty himself, who responds to skeptics of his wealth-tax idea by saying that the US already has a wealth tax. It varies from locality to locality, but the average American real-estate owner pays an average property tax of 1.38% of a home’s value. Piketty thinks that merely turning this into a tax on “net” and not nominal capital would help reduce inequality:

[The United States] has a property tax which is a pretty big wealth tax. I would prefer it to be a progressive tax that was proportional and I would prefer it to be on net wealth rather than the gross value of real estate—if you take someone whose house is $500,000 and they have a mortgage liability of $490,000, his net wealth is $10,000, I would propose he would pay no property tax, no wealth tax. Right now he is paying as much property tax as someone with no mortgage who inherited his apartment 20 years ago. My premise is not to tax to destroy the wealth of the wealthy, it’s to increase the wealth of the bottom and the middle class.

Of course, the missing tax revenue would have to be made up for somehow—higher taxes, less public spending, more public borrowing—elsewhere.

4) Crack down on offshore tax havens.

The island of Grand Cayman, a British dependency that covers 76 square miles (197 square kilometers) in the northwest Caribbean Sea, is visible in this near-vertical photograph. Geologically similar to The Bahamas, Grand Cayman is a low-lying, limestone island located on top of a submarine ridge. The city of George Town, the capital and chief port of the Cayman Islands, can be seen at the southwest end of the island. Grand Cayman’s 7-mile beach can be seen on the western side of the island.
All 76 square miles of Grand Cayman, one of the largest sources of foreign investment in the US.
Image: NASA

 Many objections to Piketty’s wealth tax include a reference to how hard it would be to tax wealth, because wealth is so very good at hiding in shell companies and secretive offshore trusts. But that’s a problem already: Perhaps $34 to $109 billion in US-owned financial assets are hidden from the tax man in Caribbean tax havens, just to avoid income on capital gains, a recent study found. The good news from that same study is that a push for tax information exchanges is cutting down on assets hidden overseas. But there’s lots more to be done on that front, whether it’s demanding public registration of the true owners of shell companies, or getting more countries to sign tax information exchange agreements.

5) Open up the city. 

Oracle Team USA sails near the city skyline against Emirates Team New Zealand during Race 14 of the 34th America's Cup yacht sailing race in San Francisco, California September 22, 2013.
Nothing says inequality like a rich man’s yacht in front of a city where no one can afford to live.
Image: Reuters/Robert Galbraith

One wealthy countries manifest inequality is the high cost of living in large cities. This cost is partly a result of high demand to live there, but is also the more artificial product of zoning decisions, building codes and nostalgia that prevent the optimal utilization of space. Changing building codes to allow more development of affordable housing, taller buildings and fewer subsidies for cars would help alleviate inequality.

6) Wait for China’s labor costs to catch up.

An employee yawns as he works at a garment factory in Humen township, Guangdong province November 24, 2013. Activity in China's vast factory sector grew at a milder pace in November as new export orders shrank, a preliminary survey showed on Thursday, bolstering expectations the economy could lose some of its vigour in the fourth quarter as Beijing shifts its focus to structural reform. Picture taken November 24, 2013.
Workers of the world, unite.
Image: Reuters/Stringer

 One big reason wages have stagnated in the American middle class—thus widening the gap between them and the rich—is competition with cheaper labor in China and other countries. It has pushed many manufacturing jobs offshore, or forced US factories to automate faster than they might have otherwise. But wages won’t be low in China forever: Labor costs are already rising there, as low-wage jobs move to other places. It’s not inevitable, but some economists think that the trend could continue, as so-called “catch-up” growth spreads across the world—Africa, perhaps, is next. This growth lifts living standards and makes workers demand raises. On a globe without an obvious source of cheap labor, wages have to rise. Smarter trade rules might help accelerate this process.

7) Unleash antitrust.

Carlos Brito, Chief Executive of Anheuser-Busch InBev, poses during a news conference on the company's 2012 results in Leuven February 27, 2013. Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world's biggest beer maker, forecast a weak start to the year in the United States and Brazil after slightly lower earnings than expected in the final months of 2012.
Carlos Brito’s InBev empire—which controls 25% of the world’s beer production—is often dinged for monopolistic practices.
Image: Reuters/Francois Lenoir

Fewer monopolies, lower prices, less inequality—it’s all so simple, right? Economist Dean Baker specifically cites the telecom industry and its push toward consolidation, but there are good arguments that sectors from beer to tech to agriculture have consolidated in ways, sometimes subtle, that hamper economic growth and competition. Anti-trust rules, aggressively enforced, could improve life for customers, and by forcing companies to compete rather than just sit on their monopolistic laurels, would also lower profit margins for shareholders—tough luck, but good for equality.

8) Punish the financial sector. 

JPMorgan Chase Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon speaks during a discussion on "Closing the Workforce Skills Gap", at the Aspen Institute in Washington December 12, 2013.
Don’t even try it.
Image: Reuters/Mike Theiler

A favorite among populists of all stripes. Pruning the banks isn’t easy, as the mixed experience of reformers after the worst financial crisis in most of our lifetimes showed. But the financial sector’s growing share of income in wealthy economies still has people on the left and right supporting policy ideas—from financial transaction taxes, to higher capital requirements, to limits on bank sizes—that would make the sector less profitable. That means less money going to annual trading bonuses, and presumably more money invested in the real economy.

9) Create more sovereign-wealth funds.

Oil rig pumpjacks, also known as thirsty birds, extract crude from the Wilmington Field oil deposits area where Tidelands Oil Production Company, which is owned by Occidental Petroleum Corporation (Oxy), operates near Long Beach, California July 30, 2013. Occidental Petroleum posted a smaller-than-expected quarterly profit on Tuesday, hurt by lower oil prices in the Middle East and North Africa, where the fourth-largest U.S. oil company is considering an exit.
Out of the ground and into the national investment account.
Image: Reuters/David McNew

The key reason inequality tends to increase, Piketty says, is that investment returns (which go to the rich) will always exceed economic growth. But what if we give the public a share of those investment returns? One proposal from economist Tyler Cowen is the creation of government-run investment funds. These are already a common tool in countries with massive natural-resource wealth; they serve to diversify the national income stream and make it more sustainable. The US—which is no slouch on the natural resources front itself—could conceivably create a sovereign-wealth fund and share the dividends.

10) Massive social upheaval and bloody conflict.

In this April 20, 1936 file photo, armed troops march past German Chancellor Adolf Hitler during a parade in Berlin to celebrate his birthday. As the Nazis increasingly targeted Jews and others they considered enemies, they moved in 1938 to loosen gun statutes for the loyal majority, said Bernard Harcourt, a University of Chicago professor of law and political science who has studied gun regulations under Hitler. The 1938 law is best known for barring Jews from owning weapons, after which the Nazis confiscated guns from Jewish homes. But Harcourt points out that Hitler's gun law otherwise completely deregulated acquisition of rifles, long guns and ammunition. It exempted many groups from requiring permits. The law lowered the age for legal gun ownership from 20 to 18. And it extended the validity of gun permits from one year to three years.
Bad news.
Image: AP Photo

Not exactly ideal, but one of the most convincing empirical findings from Piketty’s research is that World War I, the Russian revolution and World War II were the great levelers of the 20th century, wiping out more than a century of capital accumulation and creating the conditions for more equitable growth in their wake. Continent-wide warfare may not be a pleasant prospect, but it’s probably a good deal easier to bring about than most of the solutions listed above. Why, there’s a handy little annexation going on in central Europe right about now.