The prevalence of income inequality in free market economies indicates that inequality may be the result of a market failure. Those who are born rich are more likely to become rich, while individuals who are born poor are more likely to live a life of relative poverty. In a “free” market, it is believed, all individuals possess an equal opportunity to succeed, but due to a mis-allocation of resources in a purely market economy, this may not always be the case.
The resources I refer to here are those required for an individual to escape poverty and earn a higher income. These include public and merit goods that those with high incomes can afford to consume, while those in poverty depend on the provision of from the state, including:
Dependable health care
Access to professional networks and the employment opportunities they provide
Whenever a market failure exists, it can be argued that there is a role for government in regulating the market to achieve a more optimal distribution of resources. When it comes to income inequality, government intervention typically comes in the form of a tax system that places a larger burden on the rich, and a system of government programs that transfer income from the rich to poor, including welfare benefits, unemployment benefits, healthcare for low income households, public schools and support for economic development in poor communities.
Many politicians and some economists like to argue that income inequality is not as evil as many people make it out to be, and that greater income inequality can actually increase the incentive for poorer households to work harder to get rich, contributing to the economic growth of the nation as a whole. Allowing the rich to keep more of their income, in this way, leads more people to want to work hard to get rich, as they will be able to enjoy the rewards of their hard work.
Another common argument is that higher income inequality leads to social and economic disruptions that can slow economic growth and bring an economy into a recession or a depression, since the middle and lower income groups in the nation will not benefit from a relatively equal share of the nation’s output, and over time will see their living standards drop and their overal productivity and contribution to national output decline.
Some believe that increase inequality leads to more growth, others argue that it leads to less growth.
A more interesting question is whether rising income inequality leads to a higher standard of living for everyone in society, or whether standards of living decline for those in the middle as the percentage of total income earned by the top 10% increases.
The study found that the higher the percentage of income earned by the top 10%, the incomes of those in the middle and bottom of the income distribution actually decreases. Not just the percentage of total income, but the actual incomes of these groups falls as the rich get richer.
The popular belief is that reducing taxes on the rich increases the amount of investment in the economy, creating more jobs and helping increase incomes of the middle and lower income households. This theory is sometimes referred to as “trickle down” economics, as the increased incomes and wealth at the top will “trickle down” and raise the incomes of the rest of society as well.
However, actual data shows that a 10% increase in the share of total income earned by the top 10% of income earners leads to a 2% decline in the incomes of households in the middle of the income distribution (based on data for the period between 1979 and 2005).
It’s not just that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, rather that the rich getting richer makes the poor (and the middle income earners) poorer. This is a breakthrough discovery.
The rich contribute to growth abroad, rather than at home: Rich households’ higher incomes allow them to consume more domestic output and imported goods and services, but it also allows them to save more, which sometimes translates into more investment. But more investment does not always translate into domestic economic growth, since investment is now global. A rich American saving more does not mean American firms will have access to cheaper capital, as domestic savings may fuel investment in emerging markets or elsewhere abroad. Foreign investment resulting from savings among rich Americans counts as a leakage from America’s circular flow of income, leaving less income within America for the middle and low income earners. Essentially, much of the income earned by the rich is saved abroad, contributing to employment and growth overseas, reducing incomes of the middle class at home.
Reduced support for the provision of public goods: When examining living standards, more than just income must be considered, but also access to education, provision of health care and other public goods such as public safety and security. Richer households are less interested in things like public schools and social welfare programs, as they do not rely on these for their own well-being. Therefore, the richer the top 10% become, the greater their incentive to work against efforts to fund public education, public health and public safety. The underprovision of these social welfare enhancing goods by govenrment further widens the gap between the living standards of the richest and the middle class. Economist Robert Reich refers to this phenomenon as “the secession of the successful”.
Wage competition reduces incomes in the middle: Business owners, who make up a large percentage of the richest households in America, increase their own incomes to the extent that they can drive down the wages they pay their employees. In this way a higher share of national income is enjoyed by a smaller proportoin of society. The minimum wage has barely increased over time, and workers have less bargaining power as fewer workers than ever are members of labor unions; this has allowed business owners to pay lower wages over time, concentrating an increasing share of national income in business profits, and less and less in wages for workers.
In the video below, the study’s author shares some of the findings discussed above. Watch the video and respond to the discussion questions that follow.
Summarize the argument against a government taking measures to redistribute its nation’s income to reduce the level of inequality between the rich and the poor.
Summarize the argument for a government reducing inequality.
Popular belief holds that “a rising tide lifts all boats”. In other words, if the total income of a nation is increasing, it does not matter if the rich are enjoying a larger percentage of the higher income than the poor and middle, because everyone is likely to be better off than if total income were not growing at all. Does the study discussed above support this popular view? Why or why not?
What measures can a government take to assure that higher national income leads to higher standards of living for everyone in society, including the middle class and the poor? Why might the highest income earners be opposed to such attempts by government?
Should government intervene to reduce the level of income inequality in society?
In Switzerland 71 per cent of the wealth is concentrated in the hands of just ten per cent of the population – a figure that economist Hans Kissling finds alarming.
Kissling tells swissinfo that the gap between the rich and everyone else is growing and that this could threaten traditional Swiss democracy and the economy. He makes a call for an inheritance tax for the wealthy.
Statistics show that the 300 richest people have become 40 per cent wealthier in the past eight years, whereas most of the population has a lower income than at the beginning of the 1990s
Kissling has nothing against wealth, he just thinks that if someone did not earn their wealth but inherited it instead, they should have to share a bit with the rest of society.
I call for a tax on very high inheritances, from SFr1 million ($900.000) upwards, and only on the excess value of that. I certainly don’t want people to think that they can’t pass on their family home to the next generation.
I’m only interested in trying to stop any creeping feudalisation, to avoid having huge clans like in South America, which threaten the economy and the political world
He’s most concerned that if the gap between rich and middle class continues to widen and the middle class of Switzerland don’t start benefiting from the country’s growing wealth, there could be a dangerous backlash against the free market system.
…the richest one tenth of a percent in Zurich – there are no full Swiss statistics – had 677 times more wealth than an average citizen in 1991. By 2003, 12 years later, the richest one tenth of a percent had 1,027 times more wealth. So the gap has really grown.
The middle classes, unlike the lower classes, have not benefited from any concessions, such as health insurance or childcare allowances. Here they have to use up all their assets before they receive any support. The lower classes have help from the beginning. This is why the middle classes are threatened
Why does a growing gap between rich and middle class threaten social stability in Switzerland?
What threats do growing inequality pose to Economic growth?
What are the benefits of an inheritance tax as a means to reduce wealth and income inequality? What are the arguments against such a tax?
What other types of government policies could reduce the wealth and income inequality that exists in Switzerland?
Teaching at an international school affords me the privilege of encountering and learning from truly unique and diverse individuals. Last week, my Economics classes were lucky to have as a guest speaker one very interesting and inspirational young man named Andrew Cunningham. Andrew, originally from Vermont, graduated from Duke University in 2008 and has helped co-found a non-governmental organization (NGO) focused on promoting grassroots strategies for economic development. WISER (Women’s Institute for Secondary Education and Research) serves a community of 35,000 in Kenya’s Muhuru Bay, an area where the per capita income is around $1 a day and 38% of the population is HIV positive.
Traditionally, less than 5% of young girls complete primary school in Muhuru Bay. In the town’s history, only ONE girl has ever gone to university (she would become the only Muhuru Bay native to complete her PhD and would eventually co-found WISER with Andrew). A combination of tradition, culture, and most importantly poverty had prevented improvements in the plight of woman in this poor corner of Africa. What was needed, decided Andrew and his founding partners, was an all-girls boarding school where opportunities for young women were promoted and academic achievement encouraged and fostered. WISER opened the community’s first all-girls secondary school in 2010 to 130 local girls who had made it through primary school.
Beyond female education, WISER have embarked on several other development projects in the last year and a half. In his visit to our IB Economics class, Andrew told the story of human development in Muhuru Bay as occurring primarily in three realms.
I will briefly summarize the three main development strategies WISER has employed in Muhuru Bay, starting with education.
Education as a development strategy:
Education is a primary and fundamental strategy for eradicating poverty. A nation’s human capital is its most vital resource, and the road to prosperity requires an effective education system that does not discriminate based on race, gender, or socioeconomic status. In Muhuru Bay, which is 14 hours by car across un-paved roads from Kenya’s capitol, the education system had failed to achieve meaningful results, both for boys and girls. Student performance on national examinations across the primary grade levels had historically averaged around 11% passing rates. Boys out-performed girls, but as a whole only about one in ten Muhuru Bay children passed the examination required for admittance to secondary school in Kenya.
WISER wished to improve this dismal statistic. If they were going to build a secondary school for girls, they would need to first get girls to pass the national exam for entrance to secondary school, or else their new building would be full of empty desks.
Andrew first talked to my class about the traditionaldevelopment community (think World Bank, UNICEF, USAID) approach to promoting education in Africa. You are probably thinking the way to help these kids is to give them resources to improve their education. Build better schools, give them textbooks and school supplies, maybe uniforms, build a library, electricity in the classroom, chalk boards, heck, how about we give them laptop computers! All of these ideas represent the traditional development community’s approach to improving education in poor countries. The problem is that these strategies focus only on the inputs into education, and completely fail to look at the output.
Inputs and outputs are common topics of discussion in any Economics class. To produce anything, three resources are required: land, labor, and capital. The traditional approach to improving education in Africa focused primarily on the land and capital. Things such as pens, notebooks, laptops, and new libraries are great, but they have little actual impact on what gets learned in a school. The neglected factor was the labor (i.e. the teachers!) In Muhuru Bay, teachers were paid so miserably and worked in such dismal conditions that the incentive to actually improve their students’ results was just too weak! With passing rates at 11% on national exams, WISER set about figuring out how to use incentives to improve the outputs of education in Muhuru Bay.
A simple and relatively low-cost plan was put into action. Teachers were told that if their students’ scores increased by only 15% on the exams, they would receive a 100% increase in their salary. Andrew and WISER worked with the national education ministry to develop interim exams that could be given quarterly to help the teachers measure their students’ improvement before the annual national examination.
With only minimal investments on the land and capital resources (i.e. textbooks and classroom materials) in Muhuru Bay schools, and by spending less than $10,000 on teacher raises, the passing rate among Muhuru Bay schools increased in one year from 11% to 36%. Hundreds of students, boys and girls, who would not have been able to enter secondary school the previous year, instead passed the exam and were eligible for a secondary education, a crucial step towards a better future!
The teachers’ incentive pay program was such a success in Muhuru Bay last year that the state government has taken notice and intends to implement it in other rural communities throughout Kenya. By focusing on the outputs (student learning), rather than the inputs (classroom resources) WISER has assured that when their all-girls school opens in January, its seats will be filled with qualified students who successfully completed their primary education.
Health as a development strategy:
The second topic of Andrew’s discussion with my IB Economics classes focused on health and sanitation, specifically solving the problem of open defecation (“OD” is a technical term used in the development community referring to the fact that in many poor communities basic latrines are non-existent, and therefore people shit in the open). OD in Muhuru Bay contributed to the poor health and low life expectancy of locals; According to Andrew an estimated 60 people were dying each year of cholera, a disease spread via human waste.
In the health realm of traditional economic development programs, the same basic dilemma between focusing on the inputs or the outputs had stymied previous attempts to reduce OD in Muhuru Bay. Recently, an outside aid organization had made loans to the community to build 30 public latrines. Within a year, however, the latrines had fallen into disrepair and were essentially useless. When Andrew and his team asked the community members why they had let the latrines fall into such a poor state, their answer was predictable. These were not their latrines, they belonged to the aid organization that had built the latrines. If they were broken, the aid organization could fix them! Such logic reflects a common problem in economics, that of the tragedy of the commons. Because the latrines were public, no one owned them. Because no one owned them, no one cared for them. When the latrines fell out of repair, people quickly reverted back to OD, and instances of cholera and other diseases increased once more.
WISER decided to tackle this problem using a similar approach as the one used to fix primary education in Muhuru Bay, by focusing on the output, rather than the inputs. In this case, the goal was simple: create incentives for people to build their OWN latrines, which they would then have an incentive to take care of and use. The strategy for promoting personal latrines they decided to employ is one that has been successfully implemented throughout the developing world, and is now funded by UNICEF, which trains facilitators to go into a community and in a very short time, and at a very low cost, incentivize the locals to take sanitation into their own hands and build their own latrines.
Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) is a mind-blowing and shockingly blunt way to promote sanitation. Rather than spending thousands of dollars to build public latrines, the CLTS approach brings community members together for an afternoon of discussion and education about sanitation issues. Locals are asked to take an index card and go to “where they shit” and collect a sample of their own waste. A large pile of human waste is placed on a table in front of a room full of locals right next to a large selection of delicious foods. The facilitator then goes about discussing basic facts related to OD in the community, such as “If you added up all the shit your community produces in a year, how many donkeys would it weigh as much as?” or, “How many bags of rice would you have to eat to create this much shit?” In the mean time, of course, hundreds of flies have descended on the pile of waste in the front of the room, and the community members look on in utter disgust as the flies jump from the feces to the food and back again.
At the end of the lecture, the facilitator turns to the food and says, “Well, it’s time for lunch, who’s hungry?” In utter disgust, the locals ask the facilitator if he has gone mad. The lesson, of course, is that the food and water the community consumes is most likely being contaminated by the waste they produce and deposit in the open around their village. Within a few weeks of the CLTS project in Muhuru Bay, 256 new latrines were built by the community members themselves. Whereas previously, only around 15% of the locals used latrines regularly, after the CLTS project around 75% had access to the “facilities”.
The total cost of the CLTS sanitation project? Around $55, a tiny fraction of the cost of building the public latrines that had previously been neglected by the community. By focusing on the outputs rather than the inputs, real development in the health of the community was achieved at a very low financial cost.
Entrepreneurship and micro-lending as a development strategy:
The final approach to human development in Muhuru Bay Andrew discussed with my classes focused on the economic empowerment of community entrepreneurs. Micro-lending is a much talked about and widely used development strategy that provides financial credit or technology loans to entrepreneurs in poor communities to create small businesses, ideally ones with a socially beneficial purpose. Watch the first 12 minutes of the video below to get a better idea of the history and purpose of micro-finance as a strategy for achieving economic development.
In Muhuru Bay, the micro-lending scheme Andrew has pioneered involved not financial capital, but physical capital (i.e. technology).
WISER was able to secure several technology donations, including a copy machine, several laptop computers with cellular internet connections, a foot pump for water, and a digital LCD projector. WISER then solicited loan requests from several “young entrepreneurs”. Young men and women wrote business plans outlining how they would use the technology loans to generate income for themselves and the community, and provide services that would benefit others in the Muhuru Bay community. The technology would not be donated to the recipients; rather they would be required to pay back the value of the capital through their business revenues.
It is simply amazing how a few pieces of second-hand technology, items that we in the rich North would take for granted as relatively common and thus of very little social or economic value, can completely change a poor community in Africa for the better. Here’s how some of the capital Andrew and WISER loaned to young entrepreneurs were put to use to achieve meaningful development in Muhuru Bay:
The copy machine was installed and powered by a generator. It was the first such machine ever installed in Muhuru Bay. Local businesses, students, job seekers and other could now, for a few cents, photo-copy their documents locally, avoiding the two hour drive previously required for such a service.
The laptops were installed in an internet café and made available to local students and businesses. Farmers and fisherman could check product prices in the cities hours away, increasing efficiency and bargaining positions when middle-men came to town to buy their produce. Job openings in the city newspapers’ classifieds could be printed and posted for the local community to see, improving information symmetry between the poor countryside and the cities where job opportunities existed. The cost of access to these services was cheap, yet the entrepreneurs who were granted the laptop loan were able to pay back the cost of the technology in no time at all, and the community as a whole benefited from their existence.
My favorite entrepreneurial venture involved the LCD projector. This piece of technology, which now hangs from the ceiling of thousands of classrooms around the rich world, had never before been seen in Muhuru Bay. You may think it ended up in a classroom or in an office building, but no; the entrepreneurs who received the projector hooked it up to a satellite dish which captured and projected English Premier League football matches onto the wall of a large room in a local building. The business was to sell tickets to local football fans who were more than happy to pay to watch English football matches in full color on a wall-sized screen. Before the projector, dozens would have huddled around a tiny television with poor reception to watch football matches. The “football theater” business was the most successful of all, and paid back its loan fastest.
All three of these entrepreneurial endeavors were very low cost, using donated technologies. The reason for their successes, however, must be attributed to the model for implementation. They were not simply “given” to the community. Such a strategy would certainly have led to the same “tragedy of the commons” experienced when the outside aid organization funded the construction of public latrines. The capital would have been neglected and fallen into disrepair. By lending the technology to businesses, however, the incentive for innovative and socially beneficial ventures was created, and a business model was developed to best utilize the resources in a profit-earning, sustainable manner. With very little inputs, fantastic outputs were achieved, enriching not only the entrepreneurs, but the entire Muhuru Bay community.
Economic Development the WISER Way:
Andrew’s visit to Zurich International School was eye-opening in many ways. He brought to light both the successes of WISER and other community projects in rural Kenya, but also shined a light on the failures of the traditional development community’s agenda. When I think about the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been committed to economic development in Africa over the past decades, and on into future decades, I wonder whether the diplomats and the politicians in the “aid community” have any idea how much has been accomplished on the ground in places like Muhuru Bay thanks to community-based organization like WISER.
With so little, so much can be accomplished. The poor of Africa and the world need resources, but more importantly they need education, health and sanitation, and business opportunities so that they can enjoy the benefits of development from the bottom up. Development aid, as it has traditionally been distributed, comes from the top down, funneled through national governments. Waste and corruption are rampant, and typically only a fraction of what has been given ends up on the ground in places like Muhuru Bay. Even when it does, the tragedy of the commons often results in inefficiency and waste, as the “inputs” are managed and distributed from the top down, leading to uncertainty of ownership and misaligned incentives once the resources are on the ground.
Perhaps aid from the outside is still needed, but Andy’s visit showed me and my students that something much more basic lies at the core of successful economic development. Education focusing on outputs rather than inputs, sanitation focusing on outputs rather than inputs, and entrepreneurship that empowers business leadership, have improved the lives of thousands in one Kenyan community. What could such a re-thinking of development strategies do for the rest of Africa and the developing world?
Fair trade schemes aim to get more of the money we spend on our stuff into the hands of the workers in less developed countries where they originate. Some examples of goods produces in fair trade cooperatives in poor countries include fruits, tea, coffee and cocoa. Some handicrafts and textiles are also available from Fair trade programs as well.
It is estimated that approximately 7.5 million producers in the developing world participate in fair trade programs, producing $5 billion worth of output.
a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers – especially in the South.
Fair Trade organisations (backed by consumers) are engaged actively in supporting producers, awareness raising and in campaigning for changes in the rules and practice of conventional international trade”.
Fair trade as a strategy for economic development is controversial, as many argue that either fails at raising the incomes of the farmers it is supposed to serave or that it incentivizes farmers to remain in the low-productivity agricultural sector rather than seeking higher productivity jobs in manufacturing, thereby contributing to poverty in poor countries.
Below are two videos that proclaim the benefits of free trade. After watching the videos, discuss the benefits of fair trade with your class.
Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of Fair Trade programs at promoting economic development.
Outline the possible advantages of a country specializing in manufactured goods instead of primary products.
What factors explain the growth in importance of multinational corporations over recent decades? Illustrate your answer where possible by making reference to your own or other countries. Do multinational corporations work in favor of or against the interests of Less Developed Countries?
To what extent has the international trading system contributed to economic growth and development in less developed countries?
Discuss the view that increased trade is more important than increased aid for less developed economies.
Inequality in the distribution of income is an inevitable result of an economic system that rewards the households with the highest skills, best education and most access to capital with higher wages and incomes in the marketplace.
The existence of poverty, both relative and absolute, poses several obstacles to the improvement of well-being for a nation’s people. Social unrest among the poorest members of society can lead to political and economic instability for a nation as a whole. The hardships experienced by society’s poorest members are ultimately felt by the rest of society as the needs of the poor must be met in one way or another, and in extreme circumstances may lead to a violent struggle between economic classes.
The existence of absolute poverty poses the greatest obstacle to national economies and society as those who experience it are unlikely to contribute whatsoever to national output and economic growth given the desperate state of their health and education. Without promoting some degree of equality in the distribution of income, governments run the risk of undermining their accomplishment of other social and economic objectives. So how do governments achieve more equal income distribution? Before we look at the modern mechanisms by which this objective is achieved, it is important to examine the historical ideology that frames modern economic policy.
For centuries the role of government has been debated among economists. The extent to which it is the government’s job to assure equality in the distribution of income has never been fully agreed upon by policymakers, whose opinions differ depending on the school of economic ideology to which they prescribe. On the far left of the economic spectrum is Marxist/socialist ideology, which believes that households’ money incomes should be made obsolete and each household’s level of consumption should instead be based on the “use-value” of the output which it produces. In a pure Marxist or socialist economy, money incomes do not matter since the output of the nation will be shared equally among all those who contribute to its production. Private ownership of resources and the output those resources produce is wholly abolished in a socialist economy and the ownership and allocation of resources, goods and services is in the hands of the state and production and consumption is undertaken based on the principle of equality.
The slogan “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”, made populate by Karl Marx, summarized the view that a household’s consumption should be based on its level of need. To take this idea to its logical conclusion, all households in a nation have essentially the same basic needs therefore household incomes should be equal across the nation.
On the other extreme of the economic spectrum is the laissez faire, free market model which argues that the only role the government should play in the market economy is in the protection of private property rights, which assures that the private owners of resources, including land, labor and capital, are able to pursue their own self-interest in an unregulated marketplace where their money incomes are determined by the “exchange-value” of the resources they control. In a laissez-faire market economy, the level of income and consumption of households varies greatly across society as the exchange-value of the resources owned by households determines income, rather than the principle of equality underlying socialism. Each individual in society is free to pursue his monetary objectives through the improvement of his human capital and the subsequent increase in its exchange-value in the labor market.
In today’s world, there exists neither a purely socialist economy nor a purely laissez fair free market economy. In reality, all modern national economies are mixed economies in which governments do much more than simply protect property rights, but do not go so far as to own and allocate all factors of production. The role of government in the distribution of income in today’s economies is relegated to the collection of taxes and the provision of public goods and services and transfer payments.
A tax is simply a fee charged by a government on a person’s income, property, or consumption of goods and services. Taxes can be broken into two main categories: direct and indirect.
Direct taxes: These are taxes paid directly to the government by those on whom they are imposed. An income tax is a direct tax because it is taken directly out of a worker’s earned income. Corporate and business taxes are also direct taxes based on the revenues or profits of firms. Direct taxes cannot be legally avoided since they are based on the earned income of each individual. The burden of direct taxes is born entirely by the households or firms paying them.
Indirect taxes: These are the taxes paid by households through an intermediary such as a retail store. The consumer pays the tax at the time of his purchase of a good or service and the amount of the tax is usually calculated by adding a percentage rate to the price of the item being purchased. Indirect taxes include sales taxes, value added taxes (VAT), goods and services tax (GST) as well as ad valorem taxes (or excise taxes) which are placed on specific goods such as cigarettes, alcohol or petrol. Indirect taxes can be avoided simply by not consuming certain products or by consuming less of all products. The burden of indirect taxes is born by both households and firms, the proportion born by each is determined by the price elasticities of demand and supply (as demonstrated in chapter 4).
Taxes can be either progressive, regressive or proportional in nature, meaning that different taxes place different burdens on the rich and the poor.
Proportional tax: A tax for which the percentage of income taxed remains constant as income increases is a proportional tax. The rich will pay more tax than the poor in absolute terms, but the burden of the tax will be no greater on the rich than it is on the poor. A household earning 20,000 euros may pay 10% tax to the government, totaling 2,000 euros. A rich household in the same country pays 10% on its income of 200,000 euros, totaling 20,000 euros in taxes, but the burden is the same on the rich household as it is on the poor household. Proportional taxes are uncommon in advanced economies, although some “payroll taxes”, which are those collected to support social security or welfare programs, are payed by employers based on a percentage of employees’ incomes up to a certain level. For instance, the US social security tax is 6.2% of gross income up to $108,000. Regardless of a person’s income below $108,000, he or she will pay 6.2% to the government to support the country’s social security program.
Regressive tax: A tax that decreases in percentage as income increases is said to be regressive. Such a tax places a larger burden on lower income households than it does higher income earners since a greater percentage of a poor household’s income is used to pay the tax than a rich household’s. You may be wondering what kind of government would levy a tax that harms the poor more than it does the rich, but in fact almost every national government uses regressive taxes to raise a significant portion of its tax revenues. Most indirect taxes are actually regressive, which may not make sense at first, since a sales tax is a percentage of the price of products consumed consumed. The regressiveness is apparent when the amount of the tax is compared to the income of the consumer, however.
To demonstrate how a sales tax is regressive, imagine three different consumers who purchase an identical laptop computer for 1,000€ in a country with a value added tax of 10% added to the price of the computer.
Income of buyer
Amount of tax paid
% of income taxed
The higher income consumer pays the same amount of tax as the lower income consumer, but the the tax makes up a lower percentage of her income than it did the lower income consumer’s. Although they appear to be fair since everyone pays the same percentage of the price of the the goods they consume, indirect taxes such as VAT, GST and sales taxes are in fact regressive taxes, placing a larger burden on those whose ability to pay is lower and a smaller burden on the higher income earners whose ability to pay is greater.
Progressive tax: This is a tax for which the percentage of income taxed increases as income increases. The principle underlying a progressive tax is that those with the ability to pay the most tax (the rich) should bear a larger burden of the nation’s total tax receipts than those whose ability to pay is less. Lower income households not only pay less tax, but they pay a smaller percentage of their income in tax as well. Most nation’s income tax systems are progressive, the most progressive being those in the Northern European countries which, not surprisingly, also demonstrate the most equal distributions of income. Of the various types of taxes, a progressive income tax aligns most with the macroeconomic objective of increased income equality.
A progressive income tax typically consists of a marginal tax bracket in which the increasing tax rates apply to marginal income, rather than to total income. In such a system, the average tax a household pays increases less rapidly than the marginal tax, since the higher marginal rate only applies to additional income beyond the upper range of the previous bracket.
Notice in the table above that the total tax paid by Americans at the top of each income bracket is NOT the simply the tax rate times income. Rather, the tax rate for each income bracket only applies to income earned above and beyond the upper boundary of the previous bracket. An American worker earning $8,000, for instance, will pay $800 in income tax. But if his income increases to $10,000 he will NOT pay 15% of the full $10,000, or $1,500. Rather, he will pay 15% on the income earned above $8,375. Such a worker would therefore pay 10% of his first $8,375 ($837.50) plus 15% on the additional $1,625 he earned, which is another $243.75. The marginal rate of taxation (MRT) is the change in tax (t) divided by the change in gross income (yg). His total tax would therefore equal $1,081.25.
The marginal rate of taxation between the first and second income brackets above is found using the equation:
The average rate of taxation (ART) is equal to the tax paid (t) divided by the gross income (yg):
The average rate for workers who fall in the second income bracket above can be found using the equation:
For workers in each of the income brackets above, the average rate of taxation is always lower than the marginal rate of taxation, since tax increases only apply to additional income earned beyond the previous bracket. The graph below shows the marginal (in blue) and the average (in red) rates of taxation for individuals earning between $0 and $500,000 in the United States in 2010.
Marginal and average tax rates in the US
The main argument against progressive income taxes is that taxing higher incomes at higher rates creates a disincentive to work, in effect punishing any increase in productivity or effort among the nation’s workers. However, the fact that higher rates only apply to marginal income, rather than total income, assures that a worker’s after tax income will always be an increasing function of gross income; therefore there will always be an incentive to increase income by working harder, longer, or more efficiently since the increase in taxes will always be less than the increase income.
A progressive income tax system provides governments with an effective means of re-distributing the nation’s income since those with the greatest ability to pay (the rich) provide the nation with far more of its tax revenue than those with the least ability to pay (the poor). The graph below shows the total amount of tax revenue generated by each of the five quintiles of income earners in the United States in 2006. While the lowest 20% of income earners accounted for around 1% of total tax receipts, the top quintile contributed nearly 70% to America’s tax revenues.
In other Western economies, progressive income taxes typically account for the largest proportion of total tax receipts by the government. America’s neighbor to the north, Canada, has an even higher top marginal tax rate than the US, and rather than applying to people earning above $370,000, as it does in the US, Canada’s top tax rate kicks in for workers earning just $100,000 per year. In Canada, personal income taxes account account for around 50% of total federal tax revenues, while the corporate tax and the national goods and services tax make up the next largest portions.
As mentioned, the highest marginal tax rates tend to exist in the social democratic nations of Northern and Western Europe. Denmark, a country with a Gini index of 29, has the highest tax rate on top income earners. More significant than the high rate, however, is the fact that it kicks in at such a low income level, around $50,000 per year. This means that a large number of Danish workers are paying a high marginal and average tax rate. The burden of the income tax in Denmark is born not by only the rich, but by the middle class as well. In contrast, Germany’s top marginal tax rate of 47% is only reached when a worker’s gross income exceeds $300,000 per year, meaning the income tax burden in Germany will be born more by the rich than those earning lower incomes, as is the case in the United States.
Arguments against progressive income taxes – the Laffer Curve:
The primary argument against the use of progressive income taxes as a means to redistribute national income comes from the “supply-side” school of macroeconomic thought. Supply-siders, whose views are formed by the classical theory of macroeconomics based on the belief that a free market economy left entirely to its own devices will always gravitate towards a level of production corresponding with full employment of the nation’s resources, believe there is a certain level of taxation at which a nation’s total tax receipts will be maximized. Beyond this point, further increases in the tax rat actually lead to a decline in the amount of taxable income due to the disincentive created by the higher tax rate. The Laffer Curve demonstrates the relationship between tax rate and tax revenue graphically:
At a tax rate of 0% households and firms will keep 100% of their gross income and there will be no tax revenue for the government. At a tax rate of 100%, however, there will also be no tax revenue since no rational individual will choose to work if the government takes everything he or she earns. The supply of labor falls as the tax rate increases since fewer individuals will be willing to work as the government collects higher percentages of their earned income. Therefore there will be no income for the government to tax when the tax rate is 100%.
Since both 0% tax and 100% create zero tax revenue, the Laffer Curve theory holds that at some tax rate (m) in between 0% and 100% the government’s total tax receipts will be maximized.The Laffer Curve is often cited by supply-side advocates as an argument for reducing marginal income tax rates on the top income earners. If, for instance, the tax rate is at y, it is possible that a lower tax rate could lead to higher tax revenue if the falling taxes incentivize individuals to join the labor force and existing workers to work harder and longer hours, creating more taxable income. In addition, entrepreneurs may be more inclined to start businesses and firms to increase their investments in physical and human capital, both activities contributing further to increases in national output and taxable income. At lower tax rates, argue the supply-siders, the level of taxable income may increase leading to higher tax revenues for the government.
It is not clear from the Laffer Curve at what precise level of taxation tax revenues are maximized. The model is most commonly employed by supply-siders to justify their desire for lower income and corporate taxes and a general reduction in the interference of the government in the functioning of the free market. The supply-side argument holds that lower taxes lead to an increase in the supply of labor and capital as households and firms are incentivized to become more economically active, leading to increases in the nation’s aggregate supply and thereby promoting the accomplishment of the macroeconomic goals of full employment and economic growth.