Let me ask you a question: for what do you think your taxes pay? Is it better roads, good schools, social services, like firemen and police?
Maybe, probably at the state and local level. But, at the national level, your tax dollars really don’t pay for anything.
Let me repeat that: your tax dollars really don’t pay for anything.
In the U.S., our government can literally print as much money as it wants. It can completely eliminate its liabilities more or less at will. So why collect taxes?
The truth is that, at least when it comes to taxation on a national scale, our tax dollars don’t “pay our bills.” Our government can literally print as much money as it needs to cover any entitlements, military spending, or pretty much any other bonafide social safety net expense or ridiculous boondoggle it decides to fund. Imagine if you had your own printing press that could perfectly reproduce Federal Reserve notes. And it was completely legal. Would you ever be short of cash? No? Well, that’s pretty much the way our fiat currency system works.
Politicians play on the fact that, as a controlled commodity, it’s difficult for most people to accumulate money in significant amounts. So they talk about “deficits,” ”debt,” ”spending,” etc., referencing metaphorically what most people live very much literally. The government never has to worry about running out of money. Think of it as having a bank account with infinite dollars.
When it comes to money, the government is concerned about something else entirely: debasement. It’s more worried about printing so much money that it becomes worthless. A debased currency makes everything tremendously more expensive (except debt, which would actually decrease in value).
So there are mechanisms within the fiat currency system to prevent an excessive accumulation of money. In other words, our monetary system contains mechanisms for destroying money. Fractional reserve banking is one such method.
The other is taxation.
The purpose of taxation is to remove the “extra” dollars from the economy. However, as it functions, this system is profoundly flawed.
If the purpose of taxation is to remove excess money from the system, consider what happens when taxes are “cut.” When the government cuts taxes, it has decided to remove less excess money from the economy. Why would it do that? Because, at least theoretically, the additional money could be used to spur innovation and productivity, which we call “economic growth.” That economic growth translates as societal wealth, in the form of better goods and services. Economic growth is what propels us all into progressively higher standards of living, at least materially.
However, what happens if that additional money does not create economic growth? What happens if major new innovations are not created and productivity doesn’t actually increase? What happens when the options for monetizing new products and services simply don’t materialize? Think of the “unicorns” of Silicon Valley… what would happen if Uber flamed out? What would happen if the public ends up rejecting augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR)? What happens if self-driving cars end up being a dead end?
The key for tax cuts is that, if they don’t spur growth, they exacerbate the problem of currency debasement. Rather than allow the government to get those dollars back, the wealthy prefer to hold on to them by whatever means, legal or illegal. Our laws and force apparatus give those dollars real worth even though they are inherently worthless. As a matter of status, the rich want to keep those extras dollars to buy the bigger house, the bigger boat, the bigger jet, etc. More houses, more boats, more cars. At a certain level of wealth, it’s all ego tripping.
Which brings me to this point: have you ever noticed how tax cuts go almost exclusively to the wealthy? Why don’t they go mostly to those lower on the chain? The simple answer would be because that would defeat the purpose. People further down the chain will simply spend the money into the economy. “What’s wrong with that?”, you may ask. “Aren’t the rich going to get the money anyway?”
Yeah, but there’s a problem with that… it’s called “price inflation.” When merchants and businesses know that there is more available money in the economy, they tend to raise prices. Since taxes can’t be cut enough for most of those lower down the economic chain to make a material difference in their incomes, the effects of “tax cuts for everyone else” will likely simply translate to higher prices. So the money will indeed “trickle up” (actually flow up), but then everyone will be stuck with higher price levels for goods and services. Oddly enough, funneling the money directly to the rich prevents that outcome.
The real question is “Does it work?” My best answer is that it has to, at some level. At least materially, our standard of living continues to increase. There are a few large bets on the horizon technologically that could have a major positive impact on living standards, such as AR, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) , and autonomous vehicles. Will tax cuts help those big bets pay off? It’s possible.
But, in the wake of that, a potentially dangerous condition is also developing: the increased displacement of human labor in the value chain. Labor is the method by which most people acquire the means to participate in the economy; simply put, it’s how they earn money. However, globalization and increased technological automation is leading to an increased deprecation of Labor value. At the more developed end of the spectrum, employment is either shrinking or progressively moving to lower wage work. All signs are that this trend is accelerating. So far, Capitalism has not found a way to address what it perceives as a short-term transition that could easily become a long-term crisis. Tension is already rippling through the most advanced economies in the form of increased populism. The world is changing and Capitalism so far has shown little capacity to manage that change effectively.
If you look at taxation from the perspective of its intended purpose, then you can understand how disingenuous the arguments of the wealthy are against higher taxation. The rich want those further down the chain to shoulder more of the tax burden. The reality is that such a proposition will almost certainly have a profound effect on economic growth. As the middle class evaporates, those lower on the chain can barely afford to make their way in the modern economy as it is. If the purpose is to get the “excess” dollars out of our economy by getting it from those who can least afford to give it, I don’t see how that is going to have a positive outcome. The reality is that we tax the rich because they have the excess dollars. Their argument is that they are the ones who fund innovation and enterprise. But it’s just as likely that they will devote their money to financialization; in other words, they’ll use safe financial instruments simply to make more money rather than making riskier bets that may spur much greater growth. Even worse, a lot of that money will be used simply for indulgence, avarice, and status-seeking. As displays of opulence and decadence become more visible in our more socially connected world, the potential for backlash increases substantially, the outcomes potentially catastrophic. Remember the French Revolution?
The truth is that our economic system is fundamentally unbalanced and likely to become more so. Money is being kept out of the hands of the very people who need it most and given in wheelbarrows to the very people who need it least. The worst part is that this is probably our economy’s optimal condition; it is unlikely that the system can be made more equal, or even more equitable, without running the risk of high price inflation at least, and, potentially, economic collapse. As it stands right now, the only way the system continues to function is if it continues to become more and more unequal.
I don’t see how that ends well.