Nothing makes my job easier than a journalist who writes about something interesting and gets it 100% wrong.
Thanks, then, to Elizabeth Lesly Stevens for her column in yesterday’s Bay Citizen. Stevens wants to tax the “idle rich”, her Exhibit A being Robert Kendrick, heir to the $84 million Schlage Lock Company fortune. According to Ms. Stevens, Mr. Kendrick appears to do pretty much nothing but park and re-park his four cars all day long. Taxing people like Mr. Kendrick, she says, has to be part of any solution to America’s fiscal crisis.
Here’s what Ms. Stevens misses: Assuming the facts are as she states them, it is quite literally impossible to raise revenue by taxing the likes of Mr. Kendrick. We could argue about whether it’s desirable, but because it’s impossible, the discussion is moot.
Here’s why it’s impossible: For the government to consume more goods and services, somebody else must consume fewer. But Mr. Kendrick, by Ms. Stevens’s account, consumes almost no goods or services whatsoever. He just pushes cars around all day. His consumption can’t go much lower.
Ah, says Ms. Stevens — but there’s still that $84 million in the bank. Surely we can tax that, no? That, right there, is the heart of Ms. Steven’s confusion. She thinks that green pieces of paper, or a series of zeroes and ones in a bank computer, can somehow help supply the government’s demand for actual goods and services. It can’t.
So what happens if the government takes Mr. Kendrick’s $84 million away? Answer: A bunch of zeros and ones get shifted around on bank computers. Mr. Kendrick goes right on pushing his cars around. And nothing else has changed.
Unless, of course, the government decides to spend some of that $84 million. Now the government consumes more goods, Mr. Kendrick consumes no fewer, so someone else must consume less. Who is that someone else? The answer depends on the details of the transactions, but the most likely answer is that when Mr. Kendrick withdraws $84 million from the bank to make his tax payment, the bank makes fewer loans, interest rates rise, and someone cancels a vacations, or postpones a car purchase, or abandons a half-built factory. Who bears the burden of the tax? The people who cancel their vacations and car purchases and factories, that’s who. Not Mr. Kendrick.
You can try to tax him, but any attempt to tax him turns into a tax-in-disguise on somebody else. And the reason for this is not ultimately to be found in the laws of economics; it’s to be found in the laws of arithmetic. You can’t drive a man’s consumption below zero.
Ms. Stevens’s great mistake is to confuse money with real resources. She thinks the government can somehow acquire real resources just by taking Mr. Kendrick’s money away, without realizing that the resources ultimately have to come from someplace. “Taxing the rich” cannot work unless you do it in a way that induces the rich to consume less.
Journalists make this mistake a lot, but I don’t remember ever seeing a more crystal clear example.