Why we don’t have to tax, borrow, print or cut.
Has it occurred to anyone that these are not our only options?
The prevailing logic (we won’t call it wisdom) goes something like this, and I’m sure you’ll find this very familiar.
We understand the need for a social safety net, especially important in urbanized societies where the poor cannot “return to the farm” in bad times, and the value of certain investments in our social infrastructure that sustain our economy and our social fabric, but we cannot afford to pay for them – meaning that our government does not raise enough in taxes to be able to pay for the services.
Here, below, are the reasons and rationales offered for why this problem is only resolvable through austerity measures, meaning reductions in social services and investments.
1) We cannot raise taxes to create more revenue because those taxes will destimulate our economy, resulting eventually in lower tax revenues. In other words, raising taxes is a self defeating strategy that will only require yet higher taxes in the future, until the economy is so deteriorated that it cannot create sufficient wealth to support the burden of the social infrastructure at any taxation rate.
2) We cannot borrow any more because we have already tried that and now carry so much debt that simply servicing the debt we have is the best we can do.
3) We cannot print money, or at least we cannot be seen to be printing money for very long, because that will devalue our currency and create inflationary pressures in our economy. We all know what happened in Germany before the Second World War.
4) We have no choice but to cut our expenditures, and that means reducing our social services and investment in our social infrastructure.
Now, before we go any further, let’s deal with the objections that have already arisen in your mind.
1) “Taxes can be raised.”
It is true, we could be more effective in our tax collection practices and we could probably tax certain activities more than we are. In most countries, that have income tax rates at or above one third and sales taxes of between ten and twenty percent, there is actually relatively little room to raise taxes without deflating economic activity. However, the most important point here is that it would take really high rates of taxation, high enough that almost everyone would agree they were too high, to raise sufficient revenues to cover an even moderately ambitious social investment program. When you do the math you realize that you cannot tax your way out of this problem. If anyone tells you that you can tax your way out and that there are examples of countries that are, you can safely tell them that those examples, and that math, is dependent on borrowing demand from another society, i.e. unbalanced trade. There is no sustainable taxation solution to the problem of affordable social infrastructure.
2) “We can still borrow more.”
As I write, in the Spring of 2010, this only true for an increasingly small number of countries, rapidly dwindling to only one, and soon to be none. There are counties with vast (unsustainably) exploitable natural resources who can borrow, but they don’t need to.
3) “We can print more money, it’s not the bogey man many say it is. We’ve done it before, we can do it again now. We now have sophisticated financial control mechanisms that allow us to control inflationary pressures. A little inflation is not such a bad thing – it will help to reduce our debt in real terms.”
You can take your pick from those arguments but ask any central banker charged with controlling inflation and you’ll hear a real expert tell you otherwise. Liquidity in a modern economy is a difficult beast to control and playing fast and loose with it will get you in trouble, nine times out of ten. You might be able to increase liquidity inside the banking system for a while, but if that gets out into the general economy (which is where social spending has to occur) you’re going to get inflation.
4) “We can cut other expenses, such as defense, instead.”
A favorite of the passionately well intentioned, but unfortunately deeply flawed. The horrible truth is that the necessary social costs greatly exceed any savings that could be wrangled from waste and militarism. This is not to say that waste and militarism should not be targets for reductions in expenditures, just that even if you’re wildly successful in reducing these expenses you simply won’t be saving enough to pay for the social infrastructure required to make your intentions a reality.
And so we are returned to the matter of cutting expenses. It would seem, and indeed it is true, that we have no choice but to cut our expenses. We can only spend what we can raise from reasonable taxes, and the options to borrow or print our way out of our problems are but short term tactics for delay.
Stumped? Did I take you all the way here just to show you that we have no other options? No, I didn’t. We have to cut expenses but we don’t have to cut our social services. In fact we can increase our services and our rate of investment with the same or less money that we use now. How? Let me show you.
Social services aren’t, can’t, won’t and must not be measured in monetary terms. You aren’t paid in money to help an old lady get off a bus, to change your children’s diapers, pick up a piece of litter or care for an elderly parent. So long as you are secure in your own personal welfare you do these things for free. Well, not actually for free, just free of monetary compensation. You do these things because they are part of your social fabric, and you are rewarded in kind by a cohesive and supporting social fabric around you. Inside the appreciation of this simple mechanism lies the key to unlocking the door that leads to the solution to our problem.
As long as our basic social welfare is secure we make spontaneous and voluntary contributions without monetary compensation. Even those who think of themselves as selfish animals are unavoidably and instinctually engaged by this natural mechanism. We do not have to pay ourselves to deliver our social services, we just have to create the basic security that unlocks our potential for social contribution, by guaranteeing that basic services will be available for anyone who needs them.
The solution that we have not considered yet as an option is revealed to us through simple observation of ourselves in action.
There are still costs that must be paid for with money, but the remaining costs are within reach of a reasonable tax on the economic activity of a sustainable economy. To paraphrase a wiser man than I: pay in money what must be paid in money, and pay in kind what can be paid in kind.
The math adds up, I’ve done it, try it for yourself. Take a reasonable tax on people’s incomes and spend it exclusively on social infrastructure that will guarantee every citizen the bare necessities of life. We can afford to guarantee everyone basic shelter, sustenance, education, healthcare, public transport, access to information and legal services. Not everyone will want them all, most will only use some, and a few will use none at all. But a reasonable tax on economic incomes will generate sufficient monetary revenues to pay for the monetary components of a guaranteed basic social infrastructure for all. The enablement of this basic infrastructure removes the monetary cost of its own delivery through the liberation of natural human tendencies.
The mechanisms to enable this solution are already in place: democracy, tax collection and service delivery. All we have to do is subtly reorient our priorities and activities to dedicate income tax revenues to guarantee a basic standard of life. It would take less than three years to be fully implemented in most nations today, and would not require any dramatic upheavals to any of the basic economic systems already in operation. It will require us to reimagine the possible, but that is well within our grasp.
Here’s how it works. I, and you, are guaranteed by our compatriots at least the bare essentials for a reasonable life: a roof over my head, some healthy food, access to a doctor, education, local public transport and the Internet. Understanding that these basic services are available, I am free to seek whatever work I can find to supplement these services with cash, that I can use for discretionary activities like entertainment and comfort. There is no minimum wage because my basic life sustaining needs are guaranteed, and also I am not forced to accept any job just to keep body and soul together. In fact, I only have to work for as many hours as I need to meet my needs for discretionary income; I am free to spend the rest of my time at leisure or helping out in my community, should I choose to do so. “But what about those who choose to neither work nor contribute?” They would have no discretionary income, and everyone has discretionary desires – in time desire will lead to work and contribution. In this situation the monetary cost of our time is reduced and this same reduction makes the provision of the social services affordable from a reasonable tax. In fact, the more I help out voluntarily in my local community the lower the cost of those services and therefore the lower the rate of tax on my income.
Within three years just about any community could build a community center with a canteen and build or acquire sufficient public housing to fulfill the fundamental elements of the required basic social services. This effort is easily within the grasp of most communities in the industrialized countries. While those are being built nothing else needs to change, and when they are completed and in operation the minimum wage can be abolished. Everyone is freed to work in whatever way they can and want to to earn monetary income. For many life will not have changed at all, they still have their job, go to work every day and earn similar incomes and pay similar taxes. For our governments the cost of delivering social services will have been transformed with plenty of workers delivering the services either completely voluntarily or at substantially lower montary cost, enabling them to balance their budgets while still supporting a vibrant and cohesive social structure.
The square can be circled. This is the option right in front of us that we have not seen. This is the solution, an alternative to socially destructive and ultimately self defeating cuts, that does not require unreasonable taxation, unsustainable borrowing or inflationary printing.
Rinse and repeat, until it sinks in.
After that, to find out more go to Standards of LIFE.