Summers on the Wealth Tax

Larry Summers is my favorite liberal economist because even while maintaining his liberal values he never stops thinking like an economist. That makes him suspect among the left but it means that he is always worth listening to. The video below with Saez, Summers and Mankiw (with Rampell moderating) is excellent throughout. I cribbed a number of points from Summers:

“I have studied last week’s twitter war very carefully and I have to say that I am 98.5% convinced by the critics that the Zucman-Saez data are substantially inaccurate and misleading.”

The arguments around political power are not persuasive. Most of what is wrong with politics is because that is what the people want (I’m filling in a bit here from comments throughout). A wealth tax does nothing about corporate lobbying and would increase the incentive to give to political organizations. If you cut wealth at the top by 30% that wouldn’t change relative political power in the slightest.

Wealth is up in large part because interest rates are down which means that permanent income hasn’t increased.

Forced savings programs like social security and unemployment insurance mean that people at the bottom need to save less and thus their wealth falls even as their welfare increases.

A wealth tax increases the incentive to consume instead of save and invest.

On employee stock ownership plans: “When you put workers in control of firms and you give them substantial control–see Israeli kibbutz’s, see Yugoslav cooperatives, see universities where faculties have a powerful voice–the one thing you do not get is expansion. You get more for the people who are already there. That does not seem to be an attractive position for progressives.”

In the Q&A Summers just goes to town on Saez when Saez claims 90% tax rates are a great American invention. “The people who were around in the Kennedy administration who were at least as progressive as you are were united in the belief that 90% tax rates were a bad idea….The number of people who paid those 90% tax rates was trivial and it wasn’t because there weren’t a lot of rich people.”  Greg Mankiw, who gives a nice parable in his remarks, has to stifle a laugh as Summers lets rip.

The body language in the Q&A is very interesting.


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