Thursday, July 10, 2014

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

 - Joseph Heath responds to Andrew Coyne in noting that an while there's plenty of room (and need) to better tax high personal incomes, there's also a need to complement that with meaningful corporate taxes:
(A) crucial part of the Boadway and Tremblay proposal is to increase the personal income tax rate on dividends and capital gains. That’s where the “soak the rich” part comes in. The argument — and it is an interesting argument — is that dividends are currently taxed at a lower rate in the hands of individuals, in order to avoid “double taxation,” once in the hands of the firm, again in the hands of the beneficiary. However, if the corporation is able to shift the tax on profits to other constituencies, then the tax paid by corporations isn’t really being paid by shareholders. So by taxing corporations less, and taxing individual investment income more, the Boadway/Tremblay policy makes it more difficult for the rich to shift their tax liabilities onto others.

I can see the argument for this. However, there always the danger of equivocation when talking about “the rich” or “inequality.” There is broad-based economic inequality, of the sort captured by a GINI coefficient, and then there is the specific problem of the very rich (whom we can refer to, for simplicity, as the 1%). While it is true that most Canadians are already able to exempt the entirety of their investment income from taxation (through home ownership, RRSPs, TFSAs), this is manifestly not the case with the 1%, who continue to use corporate ownership as a vehicle for tax avoidance.

Shortly after writing about this, I came across the following working paper, by Michael Wolfson, Mike Veall and Neil Brooks, “Piercing the Veil – Private Corporations and the Income of the Affluent.” It seems to me that before we talk about “soaking the rich,” or about the distributive effect of corporate taxes generally, the issues raised by this paper need to be addressed.
- And Eric Reguly discusses the role of executive pay and stock options in exacerbating inequality:
The rich and the super-rich are getting richer. We all know that. The question is why? Every economist on the planet has a theory. Some blame waning productivity gains or workers' losing their war with the robots. Others argue that the "offshoring" of jobs has suppressed wages, still others that lower taxes on capital gains have benefited the investing class. Thomas Piketty, the suddenly famous French economist whose bestselling book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has fired up the wealth-gap debate around the world, argues that the inequalities in income distribution have risen sharply because of enormous corporate pay packages. He's generally right (even though the Financial Times found fault with some of his historical data) but what he does not do in any detail is break down those packages into their component parts. He and his research colleague, Emmanuel Saez, use U.S. Internal Revenue Service data, which lumps all pay together as "salaries." But salaries make up only a tiny portion of the haul for top executives. The biggest single component is stock-based pay: the realized gains from exercising stock options and the vesting of stock awards.

How did stock-based pay turn into a monster? The simple answer is that no one--not shareholders, not employees, not regulators--has been able to stop the executives from rigging the game in their favour. What seemingly started out as a reasonable idea--handing executives some shares so they would have an extra incentive to boost shareholder value--has tipped so far into the executives' favour that the richest bosses are gaining oligarch status. Through the repricing of options and ever-rising stock awards, many executives have been able to ratchet up their pay even when their company's share price falls.
The executive pay system is so well organized, and so sublimely immoral, that it has taken on a racketeering flavour, all in the slick guise of aligning the interests of management and shareholders. Executives pad their boards with yes-men and -women who wouldn't dare suggest their boss is overpaid; compensation consultants are happy to recommend that the CEO's pay should fall in the peer group's top quartile; and the regulatory climate has been benign, thanks to the lobbying power of the companies.
- Alison highlights yet another set of foreign-funded corporate mercenaries complaining that we shouldn't listen to environmental and social groups because they might be foreign-funded. And Kayle Hatt calls out the Canadian Taxpayers Federation's attacks on humanities research and other evidence-based analysis.

- James Moore's latest push toward a national corporate-privilege agreement has apparently given up on identifying more than a single trade barrier in favour of labelling the fictitious as "extraordinarily stupid" in the hope that will make up for the lack of actual examples.

- Finally, Seumas Milne writes that a reversal of privatization is one of the essential building blocks of long-term growth and stability:
Privatisation isn't working. We were promised a shareholding democracy, competition, falling costs and better services. A generation on, most people's experience has been the opposite. From energy to water, rail to public services, the reality has been private monopolies, perverse subsidies, exorbitant prices, woeful under-investment, profiteering and corporate capture.

Private cartels run rings round the regulators. Consumers and politicians are bamboozled by commercial secrecy and contractual complexity. Workforces have their pay and conditions slashed. Control of essential services has not only passed to corporate giants based overseas, but those companies are themselves often state-owned – they're just owned by another state.

Report after report has shown privatised services to be more expensive and inefficient than their publicly owned counterparts. It's scarcely surprising that a large majority of the public, who have never supported a single privatisation, neither trust the privateers nor want them running their services.

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