Dead Man Followup

Since even Paul Krugman manages to be completely confused about this and this, allow me to summarize:

1) A tax imposes a burden.

2) If a tax has no effect on a man’s lifestyle, then it imposes no burden on him.

3) Therefore, if a tax has no effect on a man’s lifestyle, then it must impose a burden on someone else.

That is the argument that Krugman things betrays “no coherent picture of how the pieces fit together”. I would like to know more specifically whether he disagrees with 1), disagrees with 2), or disagrees with the logic that leads from 1) and 2) to 3).

In more detail:

1) A tax allows the government either to spend more or to reduce someone else’s taxes. Therefore either the government or that someone else consumes more resources. Those resources have to come from somewhere. Moreover — and this is the key fallacy this post was intended to combat — green pieces of paper are not resources. If the government consumes more actual goods and services, then someone else must consume fewer goods and services. It is certainly true that the number of total of all goods and services is not fixed, but the act of transferring money from one account to another does not, by itself, change that total. Therefore, for the purposes of this exercise, the total is fixed.

2) If a man does nothing but park cars all day both before and after you’ve taxed him, and never planned to do anything but park cars all day whether you’ve taxed him or not, then a tax can’t alter his consumption of goods or services.

3) Surely I don’t have to explain how this follows?

Edited to add: Many are arguing in comments that increased government spending can lead to increased output. And so it can in many circumstances. But the increased spending yields the increased output whether or not Mr Kendrick gets taxed. The question here is: “What are the effects of trying to tax Mr Kendrick?” “What are the effects of government spending?” is a different question, no less interesting, but not the topic of this series of posts.

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162 Responses to “Dead Man Followup”


  1. 1 1 dullgeek

    Hmmm… This makes perfect sense to me. All three of your posts on this topic have made perfect sense to me. That’s pretty unusual. Normally, I have to ponder and mull over things you write before I eventually discover something that I didn’t understand, and come to agree with you. Not so with this.

    Possible explanations:
    1) It’s obvious.
    2) I so want to agree with this conclusion that I’m not looking at it critically enough.
    3) I’m starting to think more like you.

    I hope for 1, I suspect 2, I fear 3.

  2. 2 2 Lawrence Kesteloot

    “It is certainly true that the number of total of all goods and services is not fixed, but the act of transferring money from one account to another does not, by itself, change that total.”

    This is the part I don’t get. If I have $1000 in my pocket and I’m not using it, but then choose to give it to a friend who uses it to buy an iPad, then one more iPad has been consumed than if I had kept the cash in my pocket. Are you assuming that the cash in my pocket is actually being used somehow (either lent out if in a bank account, or increasing the value of money if literally unused)?

  3. 3 3 wtf

    jeez louise, Landsburg! how about this: K has $84M in cash stuffed into his mattress; the widget factory, like other factories in K’s depressed economy, is running at half capacity; the government taxes K to the tune of $42M and buys widgets sufficient to lift the factory to full capacity. since everyone is at half capacity when the widget factory picks up, the resources it engages are otherwise idle. so no one is the poorer, in fact quite the opposite. — or do you say that no resources ever “sit idle”?

  4. 4 4 Steve Landsburg

    Lawrence Kesteloot:

    Are you assuming that the cash in my pocket is actually being used somehow

    Cash cannot be used to make iPads. Only silicon can be used to make iPads.

  5. 5 5 Joe

    If the government consumes more actual goods and services, then someone else must consume fewer goods and services.

    You’re assuming that the economy can’t grow. Suppose you have an economy that has one factory, and that factory is operating at 50% of capacity. If the government consumes more goods, then the factory might then be operating at, say, 70% of capacity. Since the marginal cost of the increase in production stays the same (because the factory isn’t operating at capacity), prices don’t go up and the total consumption of goods in the economy increases.

  6. 6 6 Steve Landsburg, wf

    Joe, wtf (and many others): Once again (I’ve said this in comments already, but you might have missed it): You are arguing about the effects of government spending. But this was a question about the effects of taxation. The effects you’re describing (if they are real) will result from the government’s spending whether or not they tax Mr Kendrick.

  7. 7 7 Andy

    Is it theoretically possible for a tax to have no burden, if (in this scenario) the spending targets idle resources?

  8. 8 8 Steve Landsburg

    Andy:

    Is it theoretically possible for a tax to have no burden, if (in this scenario) the spending targets idle resources?

    If the resources are permanently idle, obviously you can confiscate them without burdening anyone.

  9. 9 9 David Wallin

    “Joe, wtf (and many others): Once again (I’ve said this in comments already, but you might have missed it): You are arguing about the effects of government spending. But this was a question about the effects of taxation. The effects you’re describing (if they are real) will result from the government’s spending whether or not they tax Mr Kendrick.”

    While this is off the original point, I will add the following to those who justify this along the lines of those cited above: If this increased government spending does indeed “improve” the economy, then we must love the talented counterfeiters. If I can introduce undetectable pseudo-greenbacks, I must be a hero. Happy days are here again.

  10. 10 10 Martin

    It seems to me that it is government spending that imposes the burden in your example. If the, for example, the name on the bank account is changed from man to g’vt, nothing has changed if the behaviour of the man has not changed. What the argument is premised upon is that government spending lowers overall utility, because utility is maximized by individuals maximizing their utility functions. Government spending constrains them.

  11. 11 11 dullgeek

    Can you confirm my understanding? You are trying to make two points:

    A) Money is not the same thing as resources. Taking someone’s money does not imply a change in resource consumption for that person. For example, taxing a dead person’s estate can’t possibly impact the resource consumption of the dead person.

    B) Taxing a dead man *must* impose reduced resource consumption on someone other than the dead man. And since Kendrick’s resource consumption is already pretty low, the same thing applies to Kendrick. Hence at least one fatal flaw of “taxing the rich” is that someone else must pay the penalty of consuming less. And often that penalty is paid by the poor who have reduced access to credit by exactly the amount of the tax taken out of the bank account of the dead man or Kendrick.

    Both together make this point: money is fungible. When you tax someone using money, the resource consumption may be paid by someone other than who you intended.

    Do I get it? Did I go too far? Did I not go far enough? Did I miss it entirely?

  12. 12 12 Steve Landsburg

    dullgeek: You got it exactly.

  13. 13 13 Chris

    No, no, and no.

    1. This is a Say’s Law violation pure and simple – why Krugman and DeLong are saying the whole thing is nonsense. If all there were in the world were currently produced goods and services, sure, you can’t have an excess supply. All markets clear, increase in someone’s consumption of currently produced good couldn’t happen except to be offset by reduction somewhere else. But if you have an excess demand for financial assets – which basically has to be true now given short term rates at zero there’s a market that’s not clearing – everyone wants to push consumption into the future and hold more safe financial assets – then you have an excess supply of currently produced goods and services.

    No one else _has_ to consume any less. Essentially, the trick that you’ve pulled by taking his $84 million is to transfer it from those who want to hold cash to those who want to spend today, and there are those producers who have items that they can’t sell and will sell some of them.

    2. Everyone gets Say’s law wrong. But this one is the real head scratcher. You’re taking away $84 MM of future consumption from him or his heirs. If you assume that _no one_ would actually consume that $84MM of PV ever in the future (I’m not even sure this is possible, unless you imagine that he withdraws the money and burns it), then in fact, no one is paying the ‘burden’ of this tax. That does not in fact mean that he ‘can’t be taxed’…at least not in any normal definition of the word ‘tax’. Unless, as you seem to try to do, to define ‘tax’ in a new way entirely which is ‘something the government does that affects my behavior.’

    You mention that this is about taxation, not government spending, but as I understand your original story, it’s the government actually spending which crowds out someone else’s spending that’s key to the story…so I’m not sure how you can divorce the two. If the government literally took that money and did nothing with it (just like the first guy), not sure how anyone’s spending would be affected by that.

    Or put differently, to spend is to tax, and to tax is to spend.

  14. 14 14 Steve Landsburg

    Chris:

    If the government literally took that money and did nothing with it (just like the first guy), not sure how anyone’s spending would be affected by that.

    If the government literally took that money and did nothing with it, someone else’s taxes would fall. If they took the money out of circulation entirely, the price level would fall. Either way, someone is richer and someone consumes more.

  15. 15 15 nobody.really

    1) A tax allows the government either to spend more or to reduce someone else’s taxes.

    * * *

    Edited to add: Many are arguing in comments that increased government spending can lead to increased output. And so it can in many circumstances. But the increased spending yields the increased output whether or not Mr Kendrick gets taxed.

    I’m not following this. A tax allows more spending. But government spending is actually unrelated to taxes?

    My 2 cents: Taxation is not spending.

    When government taxes people, the effect is to take money out of circulation. I suspect that reducing supply without altering demand would tend to increase the price relative to all other things – that is, taxation (without spending) is a deflationary policy. Deflation leads to predictable consequences for predictable classes – especially borrowers and lenders. (And yes, it may also lead to unpredictable consequences.)

    To put it another way: To what extent would taxing Kindrick’s funds produce different results from not taxing those funds? Yes, taxation precludes Kindrick from consuming today – something Kindrick wasn’t doing, so there’s no change. But it also precludes Kindrick from consuming tomorrow – something Kindrick might have chosen to do. People who might have anticipated serving demand from (Kindrick and those similarly situated) would cease to do so, and would alter their behavior accordingly. In the short run, reduced demand would result in reduced prices — that is, deflation.

    One principal consequence of deflationary pressures is to OFFSET the inflationary pressures that arise when government increases demand for goods and services by buying stuff.

    Here is Landsburg’s point, to the extent that I understand it: In the moment government increases consumption, that increases demand without increasing supply. This increases price. The fact that government may have taxed Kindrick’s funds does not in that moment alter this dynamic. Someone is going to have to consume less in order for government to consume more in that moment. But the long-run consequence of taxation is to reduce demand that might otherwise have occurred from Kendrick or his heirs.

    When Landsburg hypothesized about a man with funds that could, by law, never be touched, his conclusions flowed from his premises. Those funds were effectively non-existent. But Kendrick was not such a person; he retained control over his funds. Thus the two scenarios, while appearing similar at a moment in time, differ over time. That is the source of the dispute here.

  16. 16 16 Phil

    Suppose a group of beer enthusiasts, home-brewers all, drink together frequently. At one point, one of these friends promises another a cask of beer rather than some other form of compensation in exchange for the second friend to house-sit for the first while he is out of town. Before long, the friends are exchanging chits for favors with some frequency.

    One of the friends decides to stop drinking. Fearing that the temptation to resume drinking would be too strong otherwise, this individual no longer spends time with the others.

    But when this individual left the group, he took with him a number of chits that would entitle him to casks of beer he has no intention of ever drinking.

    If he takes these chits to the grave with him, that’s so many fewer casks his former friends are obligated to produce and hand over to others for their consumption. Whether that means they save labor or consume more of their own beer, one way or another, they are better off. Suppose instead that the circle of friends decides to demand the return of their former friend’s chits. Regardless of how they divvy up those chits, everyone who owed a cask of beer to this individual before he left the group is made so much the poorer.

    If I understand him correctly, Steven is making an argument that is similar to this, where Kendrick is the teetotaler.

  17. 17 17 Lawrence Kesteloot

    Steve,

    I don’t think you answered my question about the extra iPad consumed if I give $1000 to my friend.

  18. 18 18 Joe

    Joe, wtf (and many others): Once again (I’ve said this in comments already, but you might have missed it): You are arguing about the effects of government spending. But this was a question about the effects of taxation. The effects you’re describing (if they are real) will result from the government’s spending whether or not they tax Mr Kendrick.

    But, but … I’m using your own argument on the effects of taxation (that any increase in govt. spending due to taxation has to be offset by a decline in consumer spending.). This clearly isn’t true unless the economy is operating at full employment (for reasons given above).

    BTW, if you follow your own logic, then if Mr. Kendrick suddenly decided to spend his own money, then that spending would have to be offset by a decline in other spending and the economy wouldn’t grow. Or, alternatively, if everyone just decided to behave like Mr. Kendrick and not spend anything then the economy wouldn’t suffer as a result.

  19. 19 19 Richard

    This is quite fascinating. A whole discussion that initially started from a journalists confusion between wealth and money, prompting prof. landsburg to respond, prompting three other prominent bloggers to counter-respond.

    For as much as I disagree with Landsburg (ie “Buy American means you’re a racist” nonsense), he’s right. The article was a blatant example of why journalists shouldn’t be allowed to report on economic issues, they make stupid mistakes such as confusing money with wealth. Another one I see all the time that I absolutely hate is “The Federal Reserve lowered the Federal Funds Rate.” Idiots.

    But there’s a flaw with his initial post, which is that he misses the bigger picture of the journalist’s article. She’s arguing against cutting fundamental government services such as education, parks, etc. and instead would rather tax wealthy heirs in order to balance the deficits and pay off the debt. This is what Paul Krugman points out, and I think he’s spot on too. Governments can consume more than what they take in as revenue. So, if we tax Mr. Kendrick, who just pushes cars around all day long, and use that money to pay off the debt, then this avoids the long-run tax imposed on the masses and more people are better off. Mr. Kendrick’s welfare is unaffected.

    DeLong’s criticism is just nit-picky. I don’t see any substantial weight in his post.

    Noah Smith’s post also makes some pretty elementary errors. Landsburg wasn’t talking about GDP, but let’s take the GDP identity that he provided.

    GDP=C+I+G+NX

    If taxes causes C to diminish and G to increase, then there is no net change in GDP but it also reflects what Landsburg was saying. In order for the government to consume more, someone else (“C”) must consume less.

  20. 20 20 Phil

    Of course, the critical assumption is that Kendrick, like the man who gives up drinking, has no use for his slips of paper. Whether there is such a thing as being “idly rich” to this extreme, the Stevens column was pretty much depicting Kendrick in this light. So it doesn’t make much sense to criticize Landsburg for making this assumption, when his goal is to point out that even if the facts of the case are as Stevens would have them, her argument would still be deeply flawed.

  21. 21 21 Steve Landsburg

    Lawrence Kesteloot: your question was:

    Are you assuming that the cash in my pocket is actually being used somehow (either lent out if in a bank account, or increasing the value of money if literally unused)?

    The answer is no. I am not assuming any such thing. I am drawing a conclusion, not making an assumption.

    You take $1000 out of your pocket and give it to your friend. Your friend buys an iPad. That’s one less iPad for someone else (or, if resources are now transferred from building little red wagons to building iPads, then it’s one less little red wagon for someone else). The conclusion is that someone somewhere must consume less.

    If you want to identify that someone, you need some extra assumptions along the lines you’re asking about. But to be sure that there is such a someone, no assumption is needed.

  22. 22 22 dullgeek

    So, if we tax Mr. Kendrick, who just pushes cars around all day long, and use that money to pay off the debt, then this avoids the long-run tax imposed on the masses and more people are better off. Mr. Kendrick’s welfare is unaffected.

    I don’t think that SL’s point is to care very much about whether or not Kendrick is impacted by the tax. But instead that price paid by the tax will end up being paid by others who were not intended to be taxed. When you take Kendrick’s “idle” money out of the bank, you raise the price of getting a loan. This puts consumption restraints not on Kendrick but on those who are seeking loans.

    I think SL’s point is that taxation of this sort is kinda like shooting a gun at a criminal who runs into a crowd. Your intention to stop the criminal may in fact have dramatic impact on some innocent bystander and have no impact on the criminal.

    Increasing taxes seems to me to be far too blunt an instrument to resolve an over spending problem.

  23. 23 23 Jerry Miiner

    1. One response is that it depends on what is meant by “burden”. Burden is usually measured in terms of utility. If our car parker is to be taxed on his assets then he will bear a burden by having lower assets and/or by anticipating passing fewer assets to his heirs. Suppose the tax was levied on 99.9% of assets and he kept on just parking cars. Are you contending that he would bear no burden from having virtually no assets and that his utility would be unchanged?

    2. If the taxed individual in no way changes behavior (reduces consumption or savings) but the tax proceeds permit the government to spend more without raising other taxes or borrowing (assume full employment) then prices will rise and the burden will be borne by those who purchase products whether for consumption or investment. i.e. just like printing money.

  24. 24 24 Steve Landsburg

    Jerry Milner:

    2. If the taxed individual in no way changes behavior (reduces consumption or savings) but the tax proceeds permit the government to spend more without raising other taxes or borrowing (assume full employment) then prices will rise and the burden will be borne by those who purchase products whether for consumption or investment. i.e. just like printing money.

    Exactly.

  25. 25 25 Dan Grayson

    Steve says that if “a bunch of zeros and ones get shifted around on bank computers” then it can’t “help supply the government’s demand for actual goods and services”. Krugman says “NJ needs money to pay its bills”, “taxes are … about paying for what the government buys” and “the only reason to raise taxes now … is to address solvency concerns”. Perhaps the basic difference is that Krugman thinks the zeros and ones matter, not for the problem of supplying goods and services today, but for making the accounts balance out in the future.

  26. 26 26 Noah Smith

    This argument is just one giant Local Nonsatiation violation! :)

  27. 27 27 Brandon Berg

    Dr. Landsburg:
    I agree with you in the general case, but isn’t Krugman correct that, if there’s some slack in aggregate demand, as there arguably is now, the government can increase its consumption by taking cash from people like Kendrick without decreasing anybody else’s?

  28. 28 28 Josh

    Krugman says: “And may I say that now is an especially peculiar time to think that taxes matter only if they reduce consumption”

    This statement above from him makes me think he hasn’t even read your original blog post. I don’t recall you making any such assertion. I think it’s quite clear and interesting that if a man will go through life consuming exactly the same under two different tax levels, then the tax is completely irrelevant to him. In effect, he has not been “taxes” in any real, economic sense.

  29. 29 29 Steve Landsburg

    Brandon Berg: In any circumstance where the govt can increase its consumption without decreasing anybody else’s, it makes no difference whether or not they take cash from Mr Kendrick. You are supposing there are unemployed resources that the govt can somehow put to work. That’s fine, but their ability to put those resources to work does not vary with the decision to take Mr Kendrick’s money, which is not a resource.

  30. 30 30 Neil

    Are you not simply saying that taxes can be shifted from the nominal taxpayer to someone else in the economy, and don’t we already know that?

  31. 31 31 Dennis

    My interpretation of your argument, as clarified, is that taxing “idle” wealth is basically the same as printing money. Grant that your argument is correct. Isn’t it the case that the state of California would benefit from printing itself some new money, even if it negatively impacts the rest of the nation? This is especially true if the wealth is not invested in California. Maybe the journalist wasn’t so stupid after all…

  32. 32 32 Daniel

    Steve,

    Aren’t you assuming that people will react the same way at seeing their own taxes go up, as they would if they can no longer borrow more. What if on average people react by spending less in different proportions depending on whether they are taxed or if they are not able to borrow as much. Wouldn’t they have different effects on total spending in the economy?

  33. 33 33 Tom Harvey

    I would love to park cars all day long, but only if I’m secure in the knowledge that, should I slam a car door on my finger, I could afford an $84 million bionic replacement.

  34. 34 34 Ed C.

    “What are the effects of government spending?” is a different question?

    In your first post, you said that if the government confiscates Mr. K’s $84M, absolutely nothing happens…until it spends it. At that point everybody but Mr. K is affected, from which you concluded that everybody but Mr. K bears the tax burden. You identified the tax burden in terms of government spending.

  35. 35 35 Silas Barta

    Hi, I’m Steven_E._Landsburg, and I just wrote a blog post arguing that someone “can’t be taxed” because he isn’t consuming very much, and plans to retain that consumption schedule. In doing so, I assumed away all endowment effects that $84 million would have on someone’s consumption choices. I also relied on the argument that, because the government will consume $84 million worth of goods from a hypothetical wealth tax, a tax would take away from real wealth, even though that same money would be spent consuming that real wealth regardless of the tax.

    And now I have a hard time why other people don’t understand my completely obvious point. Perhaps I should keep acting like they missed the last ten times I said that you should “follow the goods”, because I didn’t realize that such a method would still prove my point useless.

    I think it would help if I condescendingly lectured people that economic incidence isn’t the same thing as accounting incidence, forgetting that the economic incidence falls on the one who suffers a contraction in choice set, which *is* the “untaxable” man in this case. No, I’ll just keep thinking about other, unrelated cases where someone doesn’t pay a full tax because a merchant must eat it in lower prices.

    Also, I’m going to completely avoid applying this to my own life because I would protest having $84 million taken away from me.

    God I love this attention.

  36. 36 36 Yuri Z.

    >> Therefore, if a tax has no effect on a man’s lifestyle, then it must impose a burden on someone else.

    Well, if economy suffers because of depressed demand, then we can revive the economy by taxing someone not willing to spend and spending the new tax revenue. And improving economy is not exactly a burden to everyone, even though it will result eventually in either high inflation, or high interest rates.

    >> If the government consumes more actual goods and services, then someone else must consume fewer goods and services

    Even if there is a lot of excess capacity in the economy?

    I agree, that green pieces of paper are not resources. But it does not mean that you cannot tax Mr. K’s money (in the sense of taking his money away, not in the sense of imposing a burden on him), or that it cannot be beneficial to the economy (and, hence, everyone else).

    I think I should emphasize on that point — maybe you and Mr. Krugman are talking about different things. For you tax mean imposing a burden, and for Mr. Krugman it means taking the guys’ money. And it is not the same things. And I think Mr. Krugman could have chosen his words better :)

  37. 37 37 Steve Landsburg

    Neil:

    Are you not simply saying that taxes can be shifted from the nominal taxpayer to someone else in the economy, and don’t we already know that?

    Judging from the comments, not all of us do.

  38. 38 38 Yuri Z.

    “What are the effects of trying to tax Mr Kendrick?” — I guess the only effect is that the government now can spend more w/o increasing its debt.

    Now I agree, that money are pieces of green paper that we can create and destroy as necessary, and that is why the whole govt deficit problem is overrated. And unnecessarily politicized.

    But the deficit is a very important point for everyone writing about taxes on the rich people. That is why everyone stating that it is “impossible” to tax a rich guy will probably get a lot of responses :)

  39. 39 39 Silas Barta

    I think I can summarize the _substantive_ disagreement going on here:

    There are two contentions:

    1) “The government can’t reduce Kendrick’s potential consumption via taxation”.

    2) “People other than Mr. Kendrick will suffer (more) from a tax on him.”

    1) is trivially false. (less money = less options/potential to consume)

    2) is non-obviously true.

    Steven_E._Landsburg meticulously demonstrated why 2) is true, and thinks that settles the debate. However, he is also equating 2) and 1) when they’re quite different.

    Sound like a fair characterization to anyone?

  40. 40 40 Josh

    Silas, I don’t think Steve has said the government can’t reduce “Kendrick’s potential consumption.” His potential consumption is obviously reduced if his money is cut in half. On the contrary, what I think he is saying is that, regardless of his tax level, given that Kendrick’s relatively very low resource consumption preference stays the same for the rest of his life, then he is not likely to bear the burden of this “tax.” And why would he be burdened if he is able to consume as much as he likes? However, if the government takes his money and consumes resources with it, then some non-government person(s) will be required to give up consumption, leaving output fixed.

    Maybe I’m confused too but that’s how I’m reading things..

  41. 41 41 Steve Landsburg

    Josh: You have this exactly right.

  42. 42 42 Jay Jeffers

    So, it is a tax, and revenue is raised. But in a non-trivial sense, revenue is not raised by taking idle money *from* Mr. Kendrick because the burden is actually felt by others?

    OK. So as a layperson, it makes sense to me that the burden might be felt by others because Mr. Kendrick has his money in a bank, and presumably that money allows banks to lend to people at lower rates. Once that money is taken away from banks, then people get worse rates, and that’s a burden, right?

    But Steve, your answer to Lawrence Kesteloot confuses me. I don’t generally think that someone buying any *particular* iPad is a burden to me. I know you’ve addressed the point about goods and services not being fixed, but that’s still the point I’m stuck on, so maybe you could say it in another way.

    I mean, let’s assume the money is truly idle. In other words, it’s under a mattress somewhere (maybe that’s unrealistic, but it seems you’re OK with assuming this) and the govmt takes the money and spends it. I don’t see why that *necessarily* burdens anyone else. At least not in a way direct enough to warrant saying someone else is actually taxed, or that Mr. Kendrick isn’t taxed, or that revenue isn’t raised. In the example of Mr. Kendrick’s money being taken out of the bank and so raising the rates of other borrowers, OK, but if it’s under a mattress, must it *necessarily* burden anyone?

  43. 43 43 Matthew

    Silas Bara,

    When the government consumes resources, it reduces the stock of resources we can all enjoy. Kendrick has chosen not to consume, therefore, he doesn’t care. Therefore, those resources are coming out of somebody else’s hide.

    Sound like a fair characterization to anyone?

  44. 44 44 Harold

    For the whole thing to work, it was stated that Kendrick consumes little and will not change. This becomes more explicit if he is dead. If this is false then the argument fails, but for the purposes of the argument it is assumed to be true.

  45. 45 45 Ken

    Silas,

    “1) is trivially false. (less money = less options/potential to consume)”

    This statement is trivially false. The falseness follows from “a man does nothing but park cars all day both before and after you’ve taxed him”. The falseness also follows from the examples where Kendrick is dead. Since he’s dead, no options matter no matter how much money he has.

    Options only matter if you care about exercising them.

    Regards,
    Ken

  46. 46 46 Noah Smith
  47. 47 47 Silas Barta

    Josh: Then it looks like we’ve making some progress.

    First of all, in common usage, if your potential to consume has been reduced, *you’ve been taxed* — even if you never live to exercise that potential. If Steven_E._Landsburg agrees with your characterization (and he does), then he agrees that the public, thinking according to this definition, is correct that Kendrick can be taxed, and so the journalist made no error. Thus Steven_E._Landsburg’s point is irrelevant at best.

    Even leaving that aside, my point about the difference between the 1) and 2) I listed is relevant because, as you say:

    given that Kendrick’s relatively very low resource consumption preference stays the same for the rest of his life, then he is not likely to bear the burden of this “tax.”

    But he is! Loss of option value is bearing a burden! Imagine if the SEC made a ruling that a certain option contract will expire one month earlier than it currently slated to. Who “bears the burden” of this ruling? Why, the holder of the option.

    Does it matter if the option eventually expires worthless (in either case)? No, not a bit. And neither does it matter that Kendrick’s options (to redeem his cash for more stuff) will expire “worthless to him”.

    And even on top of all of that, Steven_E._Landsburg is assuming that Kendrick actions are unaffected by this latent option value — that Kendrick would continue to burn up gas parking expensive cars even if his bank account were empty! Um…

    Think about it as option value, folks, and it will become clearer.

    So, it seems like my characterization of the disagreement was correct: Steven_E._Landsburg was both a) using a non-standard meaning of tax, and b) equating two very different claims (1 and 2 above). And, of course, that he doesn’t understand (anti-)endowment effects.

    Par for the course.

    @Ken: Sure, if you assume away people’s response to incentives, you can get neat results. Realistically, the only assumption you can make is that *at current rates*, Kendrick will have steady consumption. If he has less wealth to fall back on? He’ll may do something different. But he will certainly *bear* the loss of option value.

    Imagine how ridiculous it would be to talk about a situation in options contracts where you assume the holder intends never to exercise it. Hm…

  48. 48 48 Derek Pearce

    Premise one is flawed. While the burden imposed by a tax may be consistent in an economic model, in the real world there is a significant difference depending on where it is applied. To place a $1 tax on a millionaire has a much different real world consequence than to place a $1 tax on the man who only has $1.

    This leads to the explanation offered for premise one. You say that for the purpose of the exercise, the total number of goods and services is fixed. But the VALUE of these goods and services is not. A sandwich is worth less to the man who just left an all-you-can-eat buffet than it is worth to someone who is starving.

    Taxes exist so that we can allocate resources more efficiently to where society’s value is maximized, rather than maximizing for each individual. As a society, there is indeed more value in educating a child, saving the life of a sick patient, or building a highway than there is in Mr. Kendrick holding onto that money.

  49. 49 49 Jay Jeffers

    So, it is a tax, and revenue is raised. But in a non-trivial sense, revenue is not raised by taking idle money *from* Mr. Kendrick because the burden is actually felt by others?

    OK. So as a layperson, it makes sense to me that the burden might be felt by others because Mr. Kendrick has his money in a bank, and presumably that money allows banks to lend to people at lower rates. Once that money is taken away from banks, then people get worse rates, and that’s a burden, right?

    But Steve, your answer to Lawrence Kesteloot confuses me. I don’t generally think that someone buying an iPad is a burden to me. I know you’ve addressed the point about goods and services not being fixed, but that’s still the point I’m stuck on, so maybe you could say it in another way.

    I mean, let’s assume the money is truly idle. In other words, it’s under a mattress somewhere (maybe that’s unrealistic, but it seems you’re OK with assuming this) and the govmt takes the money and spends it. I don’t see why that *necessarily* burdens anyone else. At least not in a way direct enough to warrant saying someone else is actually taxed, or that Mr. Kendrick isn’t taxed, or that revenue isn’t raised. In the example of Mr. Kendrick’s money being taken out of the bank and so raising the rates of other borrowers, OK, but if it’s under a mattress, must it *necessarily* burden anyone?

  50. 50 50 Steve Landsburg

    Derek Pearce:
    Taxes exist so that we can allocate resources more efficiently to where society’s value is maximized, rather than maximizing for each individual. As a society, there is indeed more value in educating a child, saving the life of a sick patient, or building a highway than there is in Mr. Kendrick holding onto that money.

    In other words, you haven’t a clue what this post was about.

    More precisely, there is no trade-off between saving the life of a sick patient and letting Mr Kendrick hold onto his money. Green pieces of paper cannot save a sick patient. Only medicines can save a sick patient, and Mr Kendrick is not hoarding any medicines.

  51. 51 51 Matthew

    Silas,

    The SEC needs to implement a rule that keeps you from posting.

  52. 52 52 Steve Landsburg

    Silas Barta:

    But he is! Loss of option value is bearing a burden!

    The assumption throughout this exercise, as I believe I’ve clarified several times, is that Mr Kendrick will under no circumstances increase his consumption, which means the option value is zero.

  53. 53 53 nobody.really

    1) A tax imposes a burden.

    * * *

    The assumption throughout this exercise, as I believe I’ve clarified several times, is that Mr Kendrick will under no circumstances increase his consumption, which means the option value is zero.

    Ok, so we tax away the funds Kendrick was never going to use anyway. How does this burden anyone?

  54. 54 54 Jon

    Steve:

    While chastising other people for considering the spending side of the question, you yourself are considering it in your post:

    “A tax allows the government either to spend more or to reduce someone else’s taxes. Therefore either the government or that someone else consumes more resources.”

    The act of spending may or may not crowd out private resource usage. The act of taxation by itself does not. If the taxed man has the cash already and pays the government, that is merely moving money not in circulation to another entity. There is no burden in itself in that act as you describe. Any burden would fall if and only if the government spent or otherwise used that money.

    Similarly, if the taxed man had assets worth a specified amount of money, those assets would be sold and released to the market thus increasing the total resource stock available since that man was not using them. The cash generated would be transferred to the government. But again, aside from a decrease in cost of whatever assets were sold, there is no effect.

    Government *spending* can crowd out private spending and cause an inflationary pressure. Government *taxing* causes a deflationary pressure. But it is odd to think of this as a burden from an economic point of view. It is a distortion of the marketplace, but the kind of distortion depends entirely on what is taxed and what is bought by the government.

  55. 55 55 Stewart

    If Kendrick’s money is in a bank, then the bank is making loans. Take the money away from Kendrick, i.e. the bank, and the people who were borrowing money are now consuming less. This is the change in consumption and resources.

    If Kendrick’s money is in a mattress, then the government taking it is functionally no different from printing new money. In this case the transfer is away from all people holding cash currency. In this instance, it would be far easier for the Federal Reserve to take action than to impose a large administrative cost upon the IRS.

  56. 56 56 Jay Jeffers

    So revenue can be raised, it is a tax, and it is taking money from Mr. Kendrick, but the burden is felt by others. OK. I can see how the burden is felt by others if Mr. Kendrick has his money in the bank (or if he has heirs, which is an easier case). Presumably his money allows banks to lend money to others at a lower rate. Once that money is taken by the government, then borrowers get a higher rate. OK.

    But if the money is under a mattress, I’m still having a hard time seeing how it burdens anyone else.

    Why is it that the government spending money *necessarily* burdens anyone else? I have seen you say that the spending takes away some product someone else could have bought. But this way of thinking is new to me. Should I see a person at the grocery store who buys a six-pack of beer and diapers as burdening anyone?

  57. 57 57 Noah Smith

    So Landsburg says that Kendrick is at a bliss point. Well, this clears things up. Unfortunately for Landsburg’s argument, it is easy to show that taxation of a person who is at a bliss point can be a Pareto improvement if it leaves the person at his bliss point. Thus, if you have a bliss point, it is NOT necessarily true that “A tax imposes a burden.”

    See update:
    http://noahpinionblog.blogspot.com/2011/04/more-on-landsburgs-fallacy.html

    Hence, the Landsburg Fallacy remains a fallacy…

  58. 58 58 Nick

    I don’t quite follow – wouldn’t the man who parks cars just get taxed and keep on going with his life? If he’s acquiring tokens that he doesn’t need and someone else takes those tokens from him, then he is working for the man. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that who he is working for has a burden on them. He’s paying the going rate for the work in a competitive market.

    Soooo there isn’t a burden on the valet service, there isn’t a “burden” on the man who is parking the cars and surely there isn’t a burden on the government. I’m just not following (?)

  59. 59 59 Ricardo Cruz

    nobody.really: True. If the government simply takes the money and burns it, then no resources have been taxed.

  60. 60 60 Scott H.

    Noah Smith…

    Either

    Kendrick had the money in his mattress — and out of circulation. In which case, the additional gov’t spending imposes a burden on the remaining dollar holders because the gov’t has essentially placed this money back into circulation (much like printing it originally).

    Or

    Kendrick has the money in a bank or invested somewhere. In these cases the banks, the folks looking for loans, and the corporations all have the additional burden of replacing Kendricks funds which must now go to the government.

    So this tax imposes a burden — on a lot of people. Its just that Landsburg defined Kendrick as not EVER spending that $84 million so we can’t include Kendrick as well.

    I hope I didn’t mess that up.

  61. 61 61 Steve Landsburg

    Nick:

    Soooo there isn’t a burden on the valet service, there isn’t a “burden” on the man who is parking the cars and surely there isn’t a burden on the government. I’m just not following (?)

    But the burden has to fall somewhere.

    If Mr Kendrick’s tokens are currently out of circulation, and the government puts them into circulation, then the value of everybody else’s tokens falls. In which case everyone who is holding tokens (ie money) bears a piece of the burden.

    There are many many other possible scenarios. That’s just one of them. But in any scenario, the burden must fall somewhere, even though it can sometimes be a little tricky to figure out where.

  62. 62 62 Ricardo Cruz

    Scott H.: in some cases, it’s possible there is a free lunch.

    Suppose there are people unemployed, but wages (for whatever reason) do not get bid down. Supply and demand is at a permanent disequilibrium.

    Also suppose that the bank is not lending the money. They are scared or whatever: they won’t even lend it to the Treasury.

    Many people would claim this is what we’re experiencing.

    Then, as the government taxes the money and spends, it will create inflation. It’s as if the government had simply created new money, given that the money was not being used anyway. The value of wages get bid down, so people get hired, and the economy moves to the point where it’s working at full capacity.

    This is the point Noah Smith and others are trying to make. Dunno why they have to cover it up with a bunch of jargon. Prof Landsburg probably should have mentioned this effect, but he was just addressing the common fallacy of equating money with wealth.

  63. 63 63 Jon

    But who the burden would fall on is dependent on what the government does afterwards. If the government took the tokens from Mr. Kendrick and burned them or gave the printing press operators at the treasury a day off, etc. then there would be no burden.

    If there is a burden, it is either from (a) spending from the government crowding out private spending or (b) a burden on others who are currently benefiting from being lent the money (like a bank). The taxing of Mr. Kendrick itself is not a burden.

    Even in case (b), if the government simply took possession of the bonds or bank accounts of Mr. Kendrick, the bank would still have the use of them until the government then took another action which may or may not be burdensome. The transfer itself did not create a burden under your conditions.

  64. 64 64 Jay Jeffers

    Ricardo Cruz

    I’m anxious to see if Steven Landsburg responds to your point. It seems like the claim that it is impossible to raise revenue from taxing Mr. Kendrick, is literally false. It’s a tax, revenue is raised, it’s taken from Mr. Kendrick. Now the *burden* of the tax MAY be felt by others, but even when we consider this modified version of the claim, (which I could concede was the intended point to begin with) it seems like it depends. Like, on whether we’re at full employment or not, for example.

    It may be the same as printing new money, but whether that’s a burden is going to depend, yes? Plus there may be more broad justifications for taxing the likes of Mr. Kendrick rather than simply printing more money. I’m sure Steven Landsburg would appreciate it if those reasons were articulated explicitly, rather than pretending taking all that excess idle cash from the rich is curing the economy of some sort of intrinsic disorder (which I agree is a bit wrong-headed).

    However, I still don’t see how raising revenue from taxing the likes of Mr. Kendrick is impossible, either in the technical, English sense, or in the more charitable sense. I realize the burden *may* fall on people other than Mr. Kendrick, but in order for the point about the impossibility of the goal of raising revenue from taxing Mr. Kendrick to go through, it seems like your point about the circumstances under which we might have a “free lunch” is somehow misguided.

  65. 65 65 Ken

    Silas,

    “Sure, if you assume away people’s response to incentives, you can get neat results.”

    This is precisely what the article did with Mr. Kendrick. The author assumed that Mr. Kendrick didn’t care about the money and wouldn’t miss it. Using this assumption, Steve showed how wrong her conclusion was.

    Regards,
    Ken

  66. 66 66 Silas Barta

    @Jay_Jeffers:

    I’m anxious to see if Steven Landsburg responds to your point. It seems like the claim that it is impossible to raise revenue from taxing Mr. Kendrick, is literally false. It’s a tax, revenue is raised, it’s taken from Mr. Kendrick. Now the *burden* of the tax MAY be felt by others, but even when we consider this modified version of the claim, (which I could concede was the intended point to begin with) it seems like it depends. Like, on whether we’re at full employment or not, for example.

    Yes, I was trying to make this point in his thread.

    @ ever-doubling-down Steven_E._Landsburg:

    The assumption throughout this exercise, as I believe I’ve clarified several times, is that Mr Kendrick will under no circumstances increase his consumption, which means the option value is zero.

    And where, exactly, did the JOURNALIST you criticized make that assumption?

    That was your original point, right? That the journalist made an error? Did “bad” economics?

    Or are you trying to say that if you made an assumption, that’s extremely unrealistic and contrary to all economic practice, which the journalist did not make (and for good reason), then her argument would be wrong with that assumption, but not as it was actually stated?

    Because that would be pretty lame. I’m sure you’d never admit to doing something like that.

  67. 67 67 Silas Barta

    Okay, Ken, let’s go back to Steven_E._Landsburg’s original post, and see what it says:

    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. (emphasis added)

    And now Steven_E._Landsburg is claiming that he was just working from the author’s assumption.

    So now it’s time to put money on the metaphorical table: if you can find where Stevens, in this article, makes the assumption that Kendrick is 100% consumption-unresponsive to ANY loss of assets (or of money), I WILL GIVE YOU 50 BITCOINS. (Well, it’s anonymous, but *someone* will put 50 BTC in the address you specify.)

    Heck, I’ll even pay out if you can find Ken’s weaker phrasing, that Hendrick “doesn’t care” about any money seizures from him and would not “miss it”.

    The fact is, Steven_E._Landsburg is flat out lying to say that Stevens ever laid out a “fact” that Kendrick is at such a bliss point. And rather than admit that he’s just making different assumptions from a journalist, or that his assumption is unrealistic, he just digging himself deeper and deeper. Sad.

  68. 68 68 Ravi

    I think you so completely miss the criticism that one gets the impression that you must have missed it completely. The essence of Paul Krugman’s criticism is that you do not understand the purpose of taxation. Perhaps you can address that, instead of flying off on a tangent.

    And so, to recap: the purpose of taxation is not to alter consumption patterns, or to shift burden from person A to person B, but to pay for the spending incurred by the government.

    And that remains true, regardless of what you have to say about consumption patterns:
    (a) The government can certainly tax Mr Kendrick out of all his $84M (b) whether or not (a) alters the consumption pattern of society as a whole is irrelevant to (a)

  69. 69 69 Derek Pearce

    In the initial post, you wrote
    “Who bears the burden of the tax? The people who cancel their vacations and car purchases and factories, that’s who. Not Mr. Kendrick.”

    What if the government, instead of the bank, gives the money to those people so they can go on their vacations, buy their cars, and build their factories? Then where is the burden?

    As for my earlier post:
    If we are looking at wealth as resources being converted to goods and services, instead of as tokens or green pieces of paper, then government (same as any individual or corporation for that matter) increases its revenue by using resources in a manner that is more valuable than its current state.
    In an earlier comment, you said that Mr. Kendrick’s money is not a resource. But if the government can use it as an incentive to change people’s behavior (such as encouraging them to become teachers or doctors), does that not make it a resource?

  70. 70 70 Eric

    “Because that would be pretty lame. I’m sure you’d never admit to doing something like that.”

    Silas- why do you have to act like such a douche bag when posting? Steve may or may not be correct but it would be nice to have a polite, constructive conversation without unnecessary sarcasm that does nothing to further the debate except highlight another arrogant and obnoxious internet poster who may have valid points but in the end not really worth considering. Being disrespectful demonstrates you have no confidence in your own argument. Being insincere suggests you are simply looking for attention and are desperate to be taken seriously. Needless to say, this only convinces yourself and perhaps a few others who enjoy this sort of unfortunate behavior.

  71. 71 71 Mark

    One other insight. Someone else may have already made it in the comments, but I don’t have time, nor the desire, to read them all.

    Suppose the government taxes Kendrick $84 million, but then simply burned it all. Taxing Kendrick’s money did nothing to alter consumption. Since (at least fiat) money is simply a claim on goods and services, shifting ownership of that claim in and of itself does nothing to change overall consumption. If Kendrick was not exercising his right to claim $84 million worth of current private (or even public) consumption, and then the government confiscates his $84 million worth of claims and begin claiming current output, they are simply shifting the consumption from everyone else who was exercising their claims to itself. Kendrick was not affected in the least.

  72. 72 72 Steve Landsburg

    Ravi:

    I think you so completely miss the criticism that one gets the impression that you must have missed it completely. The essence of Paul Krugman’s criticism is that you do not understand the purpose of taxation. Perhaps you can address that, instead of flying off on a tangent

    Since this post had nothing to do with “the purpose of taxation”, I would say that any criticism along those lines is already pretty far off along a tangent.

  73. 73 73 Steve Landsburg

    Mark: Exactly.

  74. 74 74 Butters

    I think another good bottom line to the argument is: “Taxes differ from simply printing money only to the extent that they cause people to reduce their consumption of goods and services.”

  75. 75 75 Steve Landsburg

    Butters: Printing money is also a tax. (It lowers the value of existing money and so amounts to a tax on moneyholders.) The right bottom line is that all taxes (including printing money) impose burdens, and that in order to determine who bears those burdens, you must follow the goods and not the money.

  76. 76 76 Super-Fly

    Ravi: If I may make the following analogy (Prof L., feel free to correct/dismiss it)

    Krugman says (paraphrasing): Taxes aren’t used to alter consumption, they are used so the government can buy things. To me, this is like saying that the primary function of a car isn’t to burn gasoline, its primary function is to move people from one place to another. This post is about saying that if you want your car to move, you have to burn gas. For the government car to move, there is less gas for other cars. (That article is full of Krugman screw-ups, but that one stands out the most.)

    Landsburg never said that the government imposes a tax so we consume less. He said that if the government imposes a tax and buys stuff, we *have* to consume less. This is the whole point.

    The government doesn’t produce goods. Unless Biden and Boehner want to trundle down to the woodshop and hammer out a few missiles, the only way they can utilize goods and services is by taking goods and services from us in the form of money. Sometimes it’s worth it, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t fewer goods and services to go around.

    Also, Silas, why do you keep calling him “Steven_E._Landsburg”? It’s really not cute anymore

  77. 77 77 Steve Landsburg

    Super-Fly: Excellent summary. Thanks.

  78. 78 78 Ravi

    Super-Fly

    There are several postings where people have noted that the assumption you make (and the assumption Landsburg makes…namely, for the government to consume more, someone has to consume less) is also false. Landsberg concedes as much…. but only very grudgingly. Perhaps you can describe the rationale behind your assumption…better yet would be if you could provide some empirical evidence.

    Getting back to Krugman’s point… and your analogy…a better description would be that the primary purpose of cars is to move people, and it sometimes does this by burning gasoline and sometimes by having a cow/horse pull the thing.

    But regardless of that, Landsberg’s position was that it is literally impossible for the govt. to raise revenue by taxing Kendrick. This is demonstrably false… the govt. can confiscate his $84M in taxes, thereby raising $84M in revenue. Landsberg position is that this would lower consumption by someone else by an equivalent amount. There is no proof provided for this assertion, but even if it were the case, it still raises govt. revenue.

    Let us say that govt. confiscates the $84M. This means that the bank has $84M less to invest, which means that the bank reduces it’s investments by $84M (this is probably what Landsberg means; but this is also not true)…which means the bank makes about $8M less in revenue every year (assuming 10% ROI), which means that the the govt. has lost about $2M in taxes every year (assuming a tax rate of 25%).

    So, for an initial gain of $84M, the govt. loses $2M in revenue every year. One does not even have to bother with present value calculations to figure out that revenues do go up.

  79. 79 79 Daniel P

    “There are several postings where people have noted that the assumption you make (and the assumption Landsburg makes…namely, for the government to consume more, someone has to consume less) is also false.”

    Well, it not that that the basic theory taught in macro econ 101? Come on new price and equilibrium with dead weight loss very basic stuff.

  80. 80 80 Ken

    Silas,

    “if you can find where Stevens, in this article, makes the assumption that Kendrick is 100% consumption-unresponsive to ANY loss of assets (or of money)” – Silas

    You clearly missed the point of any of Steve’s posts on this, Stevens’ article, or my comments. Or you’re just dishonest. Are you sure you’re not the liar? Steve sure isn’t.

    Stevens is trying to make the case that California should target people like Kendrick for taxation claiming he has “idle” wealth (as if savings and investments are idle) that can be taken from him when she states “higher estate taxes would still leave heirs with “plenty to allow someone a lot of leisure to collect cars or art’”. Do you not understand what this statement means? It means that she thinks the California can raise taxes on Kendrick because he won’t miss it because all he worries about is his cars, i.e., even after being taxed his consumption level remains what it would be even the tax.

    I wasn’t aware that Stevens’ article was so unclear and that the quote above is so complex that you completely didn’t understand it.

    Then, Steve quite plainly points out that transfering bits representing $84M from one account to another not affecting Kendrick’s consumption pattern (I repeat because apparently you are too much of a fool to understand Stevens’ article, that this is HER assumption, NOT Steve’s) means that although Kendrick pays the tax, he doesn’t bear the burden of the tax.

    Since the government now has all these extra bits in some account somewhere, it will start making claims on real wealth. Since Kendrick’s consumption doesn’t change (by Stevens’, NOT Steve’s assumption) and since consumption is zero sum (if there are only X consumable goods in the world, then tautologically you canoot consume more than X), someone else’s, NOT Kendrick’s, consumption is reduced due to the increase of consumption by the government.

    The very point of the post is the people who bear the brunt of a tax aren’t necessarily the people who write the checks paying that tax in dollars.

    If you’re going to claim that someone is lying, you should probably know how to read better than you apparently do. The assumption that Kendrick’s consumption won’t change is the very meaning of Stevens’ quotation that I conveniently supplied for you in this comment and her article in general.

    What’s sad is that you’re partially illiterate and are mad at me and Steve for pointing that out.

    Regards,
    Ken

  81. 81 81 Maya

    So unless a rich man like Bill Gates gives away so much money that it actually reduces his consumption, his charitable donations are meaningless. They simply burden the rest of us. Right?

  82. 82 82 Mike Miller

    Here’s a very simple example demonstrating why Landsburg is wrong. Suppose the money is currently lying under Kendrick’s mattress, a possibility that Landsburg has conceded. The government takes $100 of this money and pays a currently unemployed man to catch a fish and cook me a nice dinner. This man puts the money under his own mattress.

    What has changed? Kendrick is just as well off by assumption. I got a nice dinner, so I’m better off. And the third man is $100 richer (and let’s assume voluntarily did the work), so he’s happier. Pareto stamp of approval.

    Landsburg has tried to argue that the government could have simply hired the fisherman anyway, so it doesn’t say anything about the effect of taxing Kendrick. But this misses the fact that to spend that money it would have to either tax someone else, sell a bond, or print money. In any case, that act independently reduces consumption or investment, whereas taxing Kendrick does not.

    Landsburg’s logic works solely in an economy at full capacity and maximum efficiency. (And only one country — can’t the government consume imports?) In other words, the perfect can’t get perfecter. I’ll leave it up for debate if our country is currently in this situation.

  83. 83 83 Niels Bohr

    Steve —

    Does your argument depend on the supposition that Mr. Kendrick holds his wealth in the form of “money” as opposed to some other form? Few of us hold all our wealth in “money” (currency or bank deposits, or “M1″ in Fed terminology). The original article that you were criticizing doesn’t appear to say anything about the form in which Kendrick holds his wealth.

    Does your argument still hold if Kendrick’s wealth is invested in real estate? In non-perishable physical commodities? In shares of IBM stock? If his wealth were held in one of these forms, then he would need to liquidate some of that wealth to pay the tax, and the price level presumably wouldn’t change if the government then spent the money it taxed away from him.

    Your original post started with the sentence “Nothing makes my job easier than a journalist who writes about something interesting and gets it 100% wrong.” But I wonder whether, in reaching this judgment, you didn’t need to introduce assumptions that are neither explicit nor implicit in the article that you’re calling “100% wrong.”

    Of course maybe I have this all wrong…

  84. 84 84 Steve Landsburg

    Neils Bohr:

    Does your argument depend on the supposition that Mr. Kendrick holds his wealth in the form of “money” as opposed to some other form?

    No.

    Does your argument still hold if Kendrick’s wealth is invested in real estate? In non-perishable physical commodities? In shares of IBM stock?

    You can’t build a missile out of IBM stock certificates any more than you can build it out of dollar bills.

  85. 85 85 Steve Landsburg

    Mike Miller:

    What has changed? Kendrick is just as well off by assumption. I got a nice dinner, so I’m better off. And the third man is $100 richer (and let’s assume voluntarily did the work), so he’s happier. Pareto stamp of approval.

    You forgot about all the moneyholders whose money lost value when the price level rose because an extra $100 got put back into circulation. And you should have known that there *had* to be someone who lost, because there is no such thing as a free lunch.

  86. 86 86 Steve Landsburg

    Maya:

    So unless a rich man like Bill Gates gives away so much money that it actually reduces his consumption, his charitable donations are meaningless. They simply burden the rest of us. Right?

    I’m not sure I’d use the word meaningless, but yes, they do burden the rest of us. At the same time, they help the beneficiaries of the charities — and Bill might consider that well worth doing.

  87. 87 87 Steve Landsburg

    Ravi:

    But regardless of that, Landsberg’s position was that it is literally impossible for the govt. to raise revenue by taxing Kendrick. This is demonstrably false… the govt. can confiscate his $84M in taxes, thereby raising $84M in revenue.

    But the real revenue does not come from Kendrick.

    Let us say that govt. confiscates the $84M. This means that the bank has $84M less to invest, which means that the bank reduces it’s investments by $84M (this is probably what Landsberg means; but this is also not true)…which means the bank makes about $8M less in revenue every year (assuming 10% ROI), which means that the the govt. has lost about $2M in taxes every year (assuming a tax rate of 25%).

    You continue to make the fundamental mistake of confusing dollars for real wealth.

  88. 88 88 Gene Callahan

    Ravi, Krugman was just playing “pile on the free market guy,” As I wrote yesterday:
    “Landsburg was NOT (and yes, I am shouting) contending that taxes exist as a WAY to reduce private consumption. He was saying that, as a matter of fact, they will do so. And the tax falls upon whoever has their consumption reduced by the tax. And that won’t necessarily be the person upon whom we put the legal tax burden. And what Landsburg is saying is that placing the legal incidence of the tax on Kendrick in the interest of “taxing the rich” does not necessarily really tax the rich. Krugman knows all that.”
    In fact, Krugman makes THE EXACT POINT Landsburg has made here in his economics textbook.

  89. 89 89 Niels Bohr

    Hi Steve — Thanks for the response.

    Steel is used to make missiles. What if Kendrick had invested all his wealth in warehouses full of steel, sitting idle?

    This may seem far-fetched, but we’re doing thought experiments after all. I would like to understand the conditions under which your critique of the original article is and is not valid. (Your critique did not contain much in the way of caveats…)

    And back to the IBM stock: If Kendrick holds all his wealth in IBM stock, he has to liquidate some of the stock to pay the tax. Presumably the buyer of the stock bought it for a price below her reservation price (otherwise she wouldn’t have bought it), and she is better off as a result — while Kendrick is no worse off. Aren’t we then in a better world?

    I get the point that if Kendrick is just sitting there with a pile of currency that will never be spent, then for the government to tax that currency away and spend it is no different from printing money. Makes perfect sense. But it gets fuzzier to me if Kendrick’s wealth isn’t held in the form of “green pieces of paper,” as you put it — when it’s held in the form of things that people are willing to *part* with “green pieces of paper” in order to own.

    Maybe I’m still missing the point as I puzzle through this. Thanks again for an interesting discussion.

  90. 90 90 Steve Landsburg

    Neils Bohr:

    Steel is used to make missiles. What if Kendrick had invested all his wealth in warehouses full of steel, sitting idle?

    That would be an entirely different situation. Then he’s commanding real resources, which you can take away from him. You build your missiles and you don’t have to take anything away from anyone else. Now Mr K bears the full burden of the tax.

    And back to the IBM stock: If Kendrick holds all his wealth in IBM stock, he has to liquidate some of the stock to pay the tax. Presumably the buyer of the stock bought it for a price below her reservation price (otherwise she wouldn’t have bought it), and she is better off as a result — while Kendrick is no worse off. Aren’t we then in a better world?

    The govt still somehow has to get the steel. The steel is then not available for some other use. That means someone else somewhere else has to be convinced to use less steel, say by not buying a car this year. Perhaps that someone else is another IBM shareholder whose share value went down because of this transaction. Perhaps the chain is longer and more complicated. But someone somewhere has to sacrifice the use of the steel. Someone somewhere has to bear the tax burden.

    IBM stock certificates are printed on white pieces of paper. For making a missile, a white piece of paper is no more useful than a green piece of paper.

  91. 91 91 PSC

    Steve, I think your error is here:

    “A tax allows the government either to spend more or to reduce someone else’s taxes.”

    There is a third option – a tax can allow a government to pay down debt (or set up a sovereign wealth fund if it has no debt – but a similar argument applies).

    The secondary effect of lower debt is to reduce interest expense. Some of which will be external – at a point in time this will look like an export of resources, i.e. foreigners consuming stuff. Or Americans sending green paper to foreigners which they exchange for goods.

    With the additional tax revenue and therefore lower debt/interest expense the consumption of stuff by foreigners decreases. Which means consumption of stuff by domestic consumers may (must?) increase.

    Which makes people better off.

    Now if the interest expense is zero (as it is today), there’s not much point in raising taxes on Mr Kendrick. But if the interest expense is greater than zero, if the economy is exhibiting solid growth – as we expect in 3-4 years – and the interest bill reflects the concomitant rate, then a tax on Mr Kendrick will reduce the interest bill.

  92. 92 92 Steve Landsburg

    PSC:

    “A tax allows the government either to spend more or to reduce someone else’s taxes.”

    There is a third option – a tax can allow a government to pay down debt (or set up a sovereign wealth fund if it has no debt – but a similar argument applies).

    Paying down debt is reducing someone else’s (future) taxes.

  93. 93 93 Daniel

    Steve,

    Maybe I’ve missed this, but I think you’re still missing the point that very few Kendricks actually exist, so while I can see how in some instances, where the government spending may impose a burden on society in general, (usually at full employment), the fact that Kendricks is completely unresponsive to a change in choice set, defies reality, as Silas Barta has pointed out many times. Please address that point before this discussion continues.

    And if your point was just to nit pick a journalists wording, this has all been an incredible waste of time.

  94. 94 94 DC

    It seems like the confusion here is related to definitions.

    Why do you want to say “Kendrick cannot be taxed” as opposed to “taxing Kendrick cannot increase the total store of goods and services” or “the impact of taxing Kendrick in this scenario will be felt by others”?

    “Tax” and “revenue” have simple definitions that are not changed by how effective the processes is at increasing the total goods and services. I think your leap from “ineffective” to “impossible” is incorrect and is the source of much confusion.

  95. 95 95 Daniel

    Steve,

    Also in Leslie’s article she says this,

    “Kendrick is, at least, a bit less busy with this than in the past. He once had 22 cars to park. Only Danielle Steel, the romance novelist, had more — 26. In 2002, the city limited parking permits to four, and news accounts cited neighbors’ outrage at Kendrick as impetus for the change.”

    Source: The Bay Citizen (http://s.tt/12hAc)

    Which implies that he is somewhat responsive to policies. The permits amounted to somewhat of a tax on his behavior since his he had to sell those 18 cars. In your terms, now there is more stuff to go around for everyone else. In fact taking away Kendrick’s inheritance may have the effect of pushing him to work again since he must at least gain enough money to feed himself. Kendrick can be seen as an idle resource, in this case, so putting him back to work is expanding our resource set in yet another respect.

    Anyway, the point of this comment is that you said the journalist was “100 percent” wrong. That’s clearly not the case.

  96. 96 96 Silas Barta

    Ken: Sorry, but the quote you provided is not equivalent to saying that Kendrick is 100% consumption-unresponsive to all negative changes in holdings, which is what Steven_E._Landsburg needs to make his point. If you’re going you’re going to accuse a journalist of saying X, you better durn well have a quote of them saying X … otherwise that would kind of make you a liar.

    Steven_E._Landsburg’s entire exercise here is to show off how well he can follow the “watch goods, not money” heuristic, while still making a different error.

  97. 97 97 Andy B

    I don’t see how a tax is a burden. A tax is simply how much citizens pay to receive goods and services that are produced by a government. A tax is no more a burden than the amount of the check at dinner or the price of my new iPad. True, many citizens are unhappy with the one or more aspects of this arrangement (i.e. the fact that they are forced consumers, the tax is too high for the the value the goods and services produced by the government, etc.) but since we are a democracy, then surely a tax represents the collective preference of the majority so on the whole, repeat – on the whole, how it can be a burden?

  98. 98 98 Niels Bohr

    Thank you for the response Steve.

    Not to belabor this.

    (1) If Kendrick owned his interest in the steel through a wholly owned subsidiary, in that case he would also have title to “white pieces of paper,” not to steel itself. I wonder if you think this distinction would make a difference.

    (2) With respect to the IBM stock hypothetical, let me have one more go at it. The scenario we’re discussing is one under which Kendrick neither derives utility from his assets, nor trades those assets for anything else (as you put it, if he holds “money,” that money is “out of circulation”).

    Suppose Kendrick holds his wealth in the form of IBM shares. If the government takes those IBM shares away from Kendrick (who neither derives utility from them nor will ever trade them) and gives those shares to people who do value them, social welfare (economic surplus) has ipso facto increased, hasn’t it? (Presumably the policy goal is to enhance social welfare, not to increase “consumption” or any other arbitrary variable.)

    I agree with you that, if all Kendrick owns is a pile of *currency*, then under your hypothetical conditions (under which money in Kendrick’s hands is “out of circulation” because he’ll never spend it), the government can’t improve welfare by taxing that currency away from Kendrick and spending it. Putting that currency in circulation would be inflationary, and the burden would fall on the other holders of money. The government can already print currency and spend it if it chooses. But the government can’t print IBM stock.

    I’m not an economist so maybe I’m just being obtuse here.

  99. 99 99 Steve Landsburg

    Andy B: The tax, like the check at the end of the restaurant meal, is a burden. That burden can be more than offset by what you get in return.

  100. 100 100 Daniel

    And, the whole notion that we could even target a tax to only the idle rich is a little ridiculous. I think the point of Leslie’s article was to say that we need an inheritance tax, she was just trying to come up with a colorful way to say it, something that is not uncommon among journalists. And I think most people who inherit their money are not idle and use a lot of resources wastefully without contributing meaningfully to society. So if the whole point of this argument is to say, taxes can hit people other than just the nominal taxpayer, we got it, now let’s move on to more productive uses of our brain cells.

  101. 101 101 Steve Landsburg

    Neils Bohr:

    (1) If Kendrick owned his interest in the steel through a wholly owned subsidiary, in that case he would also have title to “white pieces of paper,” not to steel itself. I wonder if you think this distinction would make a difference.

    The key distinction is not who owns the steel. The key distinction is whether the steel is currently in use or whether it is sitting idle.

    Suppose Kendrick holds his wealth in the form of IBM shares. If the government takes those IBM shares away from Kendrick (who neither derives utility from them nor will ever trade them) and gives those shares to people who do value them, social welfare (economic surplus) has ipso facto increased, hasn’t it? (Presumably the policy goal is to enhance social welfare, not to increase “consumption” or any other arbitrary variable.)

    Do those shares earn dividends? If so, when you take those shares, you’re taking the dividends, so you’re taking money, putting it back into circulation (instead of letting it pile up in Kendrick’s account), raising the price level, and putting the burden on other moneyholders. Do they not earn dividends, so they’re just claims to IBM’s wealth? If so, then putting them back into circulation lowers the value of existing shares, putting the burden on other shareholders.

    If what you are suggesting were correct, then IBM could double the wealth of its shareholders by splitting its stock.

  102. 102 102 Ravi

    Mr Landsberg

    You continue to make the fundamental mistake of confusing dollars for real wealth.

    In fact, it is you who is confused. Your claim was that the government cannot raise revenue by taxing Kendrick…your claim was not that the government cannot raise “real wealth”. If you want to argue that real wealth is not being generated by increased taxes, then please argue that… and I would then challenge that as well.

    And as to your cute argument that a tax must impose a burden on someone… even if that is the case, it still does not alter the fact that the government can raise taxes by taxing all of Kendrick’s deposits. So, I would append your 1,2,3 statement as follows:
    (1) a tax imposes a burden on someone
    (2) Kendrick bears no burden of an added tax
    (3) someone else bears the burden
    (4) but the government still gets additional tax revenue by raising the tax burden on whoever it is that pays the burden.

  103. 103 103 Daniel

    These are the assumptions Steve wants us to make. And they seem quite reasonable.
    1. Resources are fixed, because nominal spending has no effect on how people act.
    2. There exist lot’s of people out there whose consumption patterns are not influenced by how much they have in their bank account.

    Really. If this is all an academic exercise in making a journalist feel silly, and not a comment on anything even remotely resembling reality I suggest we move on.

  104. 104 104 Steve Landsburg

    Ravi:

    (1) a tax imposes a burden on someone
    (2) Kendrick bears no burden of an added tax
    (3) someone else bears the burden
    (4) but the government still gets additional tax revenue by raising the tax burden on whoever it is that pays the burden.

    This is exactly correct.

  105. 105 105 Silas Barta

    Cool, then this is exactly wrong:

    “Assuming the facts are as she states them, it is quite literally impossible to raise revenue by taxing the likes of Mr. Kendrick.”

    Wanna guess who said that?

  106. 106 106 Steve Landsburg

    Silas: The quoted statement is exactly right; the revenue does not come from taxing Mr Kendrick; it comes from taxing somebody else.

    Now you seem to have your knickers all in a twist about what the word “taxing” means here. In the accountant’s sense of the word “taxing”, it is Mr Kendrick who is taxed. In the economist’s sense, it is someone else. This whole post was about understanding why those things are different.

    In my opinion, and apparently in the opinions of the many many readers who managed to understand this post (and the many who have mentioned that they learned something from it), the meaning of the word “taxing” was made crystal clear from the context. Apparently you are either a) unable to use context to help you discern the intended meaning of a word in the English language (where many words have multiple meanings) or b) far far more interested in making an ass of yourself than of learning anything from the example.

  107. 107 107 austextrader

    Hi Steve,
    I think your assumption will not hold true if the govt spends on consuming perfectly elastic goods. I think that is the point a lot of posters are making that in a situation where there is a lot of slack in the economy a lot of good and services are perfectly elastic for a small increase in consumption. In fact in our new internet age there are a lot of services which are close to perfectly elastic, like consuming paid content on the internet, software etc.

  108. 108 108 Steve Landsburg

    Austextrader

    I think your assumption will not hold true if the govt spends on consuming perfectly elastic goods.

    My assumption is that Mr Kendrick’s consumption is unaffected by a tax. That’s the only assumption. How the govt spends its money has nothing to do with it.

  109. 109 109 Silas Barta

    The quoted statement is exactly right; the revenue does not come from taxing Mr Kendrick; it comes from taxing somebody else.

    Incorrect. The _revenue_ quite clearly comes from Kendrick. The _real wealth_, or the _consumption diversion_ comes from someone else (which I believe was your point) But those are different terms, and you’re equivocating between them … despite your whole point being that one needs to differentiate them!

    If you want complain about being read out of context, maybe you shouldn’t have read Stevens out of context to get a different definition fo “revenue” to use. What’s more, I don’t know anyone who uses “revenue” to mean “real wealth”; the word exists preicisely so that people can distinguish the two!

    (If you want revenue to mean only one thing in the discussion, why praise someone as “exactly correct”, when they used it oppositely from how you did?)

    To the extent that you have a point, it’s that the government can get revenue but not real wealth from Kendrick … so perhaps you shouldn’t have chosen terminology that obscures your own point?

    More realistically, what’s going on is that you took a valid point, piled a bunch of confused ideas on top of it, and rather than admit any error, you just double-down on what you messed up. Why?

  110. 110 110 Daniel

    Steve,

    “My assumption is that Mr Kendrick’s consumption is unaffected by a tax. That’s the only assumption. How the govt spends its money has nothing to do with it.”

    So then you’re retracting your statement that when the government uses the money it has taken from his account, it must place a burden on someone?

  111. 111 111 Steve Landsburg

    Silas: (If you want revenue to mean only one thing in the discussion, why praise someone as “exactly correct”, when they used it oppositely from how you did?)

    Because unlike you, I am able to tell what someone means from context and, unlike you, I prefer to discuss actual content rather than quibbling about someone else’s choice of words.

  112. 112 112 austextrader

    Hi Steve,
    I should have said your conclusion is wrong, not your assumption. Because you had concluded somebody else bears the burden by giving up consumption and my point is if the govt spends on perfectly elastic goods, nobody else would suffer in their consumption. The govt could say download extra e-books for kids, or buy lipitor tablets for poor with cholesterol problems. Consumption of intellectual property is not going to reduce consumption for someone else and increasingly in our economy we are consuming intellectual property.

  113. 113 113 Daniel

    Steve,

    Another point. I think at some point you mentioned that cutting down on the deficit reduces someone’s future tax burden. However, isn’t it the case that a lot of the things that the government spends on in the present, in noway affect how we can spend on them in the future. For example how does taking care of old people now cut down on us taking care of old people later. So if the revenue they receive from Mr. Kendricks is used to finance the debt, the product the government may buy is deficit reduction. This debt reduction may not have any negative effects on society, and so places no burden on anyone.

  114. 114 114 austextrader

    Hi Steve,
    Just wanted to add, thanks for being a sport and answering all these comments.

  115. 115 115 Steve Landsburg

    austextrader:

    I agree that govt spending on items with (almost) zero marginal cost imposes (almost) no burden.

  116. 116 116 Silas Barta

    Because unlike you, I am able to tell what someone means from context and, unlike you, I prefer to discuss actual content rather than quibbling about someone else’s choice of words.

    Unless, of course, that “someone else” is a journalist, and you want to make an “interesting” point whose interestingness is solely a function of the fact that you could express it using non-standard meanings of words.

  117. 117 117 Niels Bohr

    Here’s what’s so perplexing to me. There are some things that make us better off that the market doesn’t provide (the military or any other public good). One of the main points of having a government is to provide those things.

    Providing these public goods takes resources, so we tax citizens, a necessary evil. How should those taxes be distributed? I would have thought that we’d want to take resources away from those who will miss them the least. That would seem like good social policy, on efficiency grounds alone.

    You’re giving us an example of this guy Kendrick who will never miss anything that is taken away from him — he’s totally indifferent. And you’re saying it doesn’t do any good to tax this guy, it’s an exercise in futility. I would have thought, of all the citizens in the country, he would be the ideal one to take resources from in order to fund public goods.

    You’re saying that this guy is so idle that any “money” he holds is effectively “out of circulation” so taxing and spending it would be just like printing money. I say fine (in this extreme hypothetical), but this is an argument you can make only about “money” (the provision of which is, yes, a public good). The government can create money, and only money, out of thin air.

    You agreed with me above that if what he owns are “real resources” then it’s “an entirely different situation.” But you draw a sharp line between “real resources” and financial assets (e.g. IBM stock). I thought economists usually drew the critical line between *money* and everything else. That’s what I picked up from macro anyway. (Mind you, my expertise is in corporate finance, not macro.)

    You wrote “putting [the IBM shares] back into circulation lowers the value of existing shares, putting the burden on other shareholders.” If you mean to say that the value of other shareholders’ shares would fall by precisely the amount of the value of Kendrick’s shares when you put his shares in “circulation” (think about whether “circulation” is an intelligible concept here), I think any corporate finance practitioner would be surprised to hear that.

    Thanks again.

  118. 118 118 Steve Landsburg

    Niels Bohr:

    If you mean to say that the value of other shareholders’ shares would fall by precisely the amount of the value of Kendrick’s shares when you put his shares in “circulation” (think about whether “circulation” is an intelligible concept here), I think any corporate finance practitioner would be surprised to hear that.

    This was in a highly stylized example where the stock pays no dividends and never will and Mr K has essentially ceded any interest in ever claiming any company assets.

    As I’ve said multiple times in this conversation, in any more realistic situation it can be difficult to determine where the burden falls. The two things we know are that a) that it does not fall on Mr K and b) that it surely falls on someone.

  119. 119 119 Mike Miller

    To Steve Landsburg,

    “You forgot about all the moneyholders whose money lost value when the price level rose because an extra $100 got put back into circulation.”

    Nope. In my example, $100 goes from one guy’s mattress to another’s. Note also that GDP rises by $100.

  120. 120 120 Steve Landsburg

    Mike Miller:

    Nope. In my example, $100 goes from one guy’s mattress to another’s. Note also that GDP rises by $100.

    You’re right. I missed that.

    So in your example we have a guy who really really likes holding money for its own sake, even though he’s never going to spend it on anything. That yields a free lunch: It costs us nothing to print money, and we can use that money to compensate him for work.

    Of course in this example, there’s absolutely nothing to be gained (or lost) by taxing Mr Kendrick; you might as well print up new money to hire this guy.

    It would be a wonderful thing if there were a substantial number of people who placed high value on green pieces of paper that we could create at zero cost. (I’ve made this very point in my essay on “Why I Like Scrooge”.) It’s too bad there aren’t more of them.

  121. 121 121 Maya2

    “I’m not sure I’d use the word meaningless, but yes, they do burden the rest of us. At the same time, they help the beneficiaries of the charities — and Bill might consider that well worth doing.”

    Of course Bill would consider that well worth doing, who wouldn’t? After all it’s not him who donates any real resource. He gets to be the philanthropist while the rest of us carry the burden, how charitable!

  122. 122 122 Super-Fly

    Silas_E._Barta:

    Landsburg gives the logical consequence of the assumptions as stated by Ms. Stevens. Even though her assumptions are probably false to most reasonable approximations, the main consequences still hold true (i.e. the government can’t increase wealth with green pieces of paper, taxes impose a burden, the burden isn’t felt by Kendricks, etc). Even if Kendricks does consume a small amount of resources, his money isn’t sitting idle and taxing him won’t have the effect that Stevens would like.

    You, on the other hand, have been rehashing the same worthless complaints for days by purposefully taking statements out of context for some kind of linguistic “gotcha” game. If you were unclear by something Landsburg said, that would be one thing. If you were confused by something, or had a legitimate economic argument, that would be OK too. It seems, though, that you have confused semantic quibbling with dialectics and rational thought.

  123. 123 123 vippydybip

    I was going to leave a comment but decided against it lest I be accused of making an ass of myself.

  124. 124 124 Carter

    In the article, Stevens seems to advocate for the state of CA to reinstitute the inheritance tax (not the US). In this case, using Landsburg’s assumptions that Kendrick will leave his monetary estate in some form of a perpetual dormanancy, the bearer of the tax burden would fall to US Federal Govt in that the State of CA has received US currency that they are not able to print themselves. In essence, by taxing this man they have printed it themselves. In order for this burden to be fully upon the US Govt though (and by extension, the US taxpayers), they would have to forgo printing they would have done by exactly this amount because of the currency that has now been put into circulation by the state of CA, thus keeping the monetary supply equalized between either of the CA tax or no-tax possiblities.

    I don’t think Steven’s was intentionally advocating a transfer of wealth from US taxpayers to CA taxpayers, but that would be the theoretical result of doing what she advocates.

  125. 125 125 PSC

    “Paying down debt is reducing someone else’s (future) taxes.”

    If you’re going to make that argument, I can’t see what’s odd about claiming that we’ve changed Kendrick’s (future) lifestyle, or that of his descendants.

  126. 126 126 Carter

    “If you’re going to make that argument, I can’t see what’s odd about claiming that we’ve changed Kendrick’s (future) lifestyle, or that of his descendants.”

    For the purpose of the argument, it is assumed that nothing can change Kendrick’s lifestyle (he’s at and will remain at the lower bound of consumption and thus cannot go any lower regardless of how much money he has in his account) and that he has no decendants. The money will either perpetually remain in the bank account of his estate or be destroyed upon death. Thus, for all intents and purposes, it’s as if that money was destroyed when he inherited it. That’s the true definition of “idle”.

    The big disconnect here is that Steven’s article was about reality and Landsburg takes her points and pushes them out into the theoretical realm. In reality, Kendrick may indeed have heirs who are not as ecentric as he is or Kendrick may wake up one morning and decide he’s going to start buying cars instead of pushing them, in which case Landsburg’s argument has no meaning and Kendrick or his heirs are the one’s who will carry the true burden of the tax. Landsburg is just having some fun here and many have taken it way too seriously.

  127. 127 127 Brian Slesinsky

    Taxing a dead rich guy with no heirs sounds to me just like increasing the money supply. We could pretend that when the Fed creates new money, it actually comes from taxing a dead rich guy in the sky with infinite trillions, and the effect would be the same. So there’s no “burden” in that case.

    Taxing Mr. K’s savings isn’t the same because if someday Mr. K suddenly needed something, he could spend it. His own plans depend on the assumption that the money will be there if he needs it, as do other people’s plans if they know about his wealth.

    If Mr. K’s money is taxed, it changes a vague expectation that the money might be spent someday to a certain expectation that it will be spent now, which will certainly increase demand. It also could increase supply if Mr. K decides his savings are insufficient and tries to get a job. (But we’re assuming he doesn’t.)

    So I disagree with:

    1: transferring money from one account to another changes the expectation that it will be spent, which can change both supply and demand (to the extent it’s known).

    2: even if it doesn’t immediately change his lifestyle, Mr. K is slightly closer to being unemployed (actively looking for a job), so it imposes a small burden – one, by all appearances, that he has no trouble bearing.

    3: the change to the economy is similar to an increase in the money supply or to Mr. K deciding to spend the money himself. It all depends on how the money is spent, but in a recession it will move toward recovery and at full capacity it will increase inflation.

  128. 128 128 Max

    The serious point in this is that most people doesn’t grasp that in our fiat money system, the government doesn’t need anyone’s money – it can just spend.

    Why isn’t the entire economics profession shouting from the rooftops with one voice that the government is not “out of money” as everyone from President Obama to Standard and Poors falsely claims?

    Is it stupidity, cowardice, or what?

  129. 129 129 Steve Landsburg

    Max:

    Why isn’t the entire economics profession shouting from the rooftops with one voice that the government is not “out of money” as everyone from President Obama to Standard and Poors falsely claims?

    I’m doing my best.

  130. 130 130 Stone Glasgow

    1) A tax imposes a burden.
    2) If a tax has no effect on a man’s lifestyle, then it imposes no burden on him.
    3) Therefore, if a tax has no effect on a man’s lifestyle, then it must impose a burden on someone else.

    A tax does not impose a “burden,” per se. A tax takes existing assets and transfers them to government ownership. This is commonly referred to as a “burden,” because we assume that anyone losing assets is burdened. We assume that taking assets from people makes them feel pain. The steps should read:

    1. A tax always makes someone lose ownership of the assets they own.

    2. Mr. Kendrick is insane, so he does not feel burdened by the tax.

    3. Therefore, although this is a burden-free tax, Mr. Kendrick still loses control of the assets he owns.

  131. 131 131 Stone Glasgow

    “The serious point in this is that most people doesn’t grasp that in our fiat money system, the government doesn’t need anyone’s money – it can just spend.”

    The government cannot spend. The Federal Reserve can spend. The government does not tell them what to do.

  132. 132 132 Steve Landsburg

    Stone Glasgow: What you keep overlooking is that money, while it can be an asset for an individual, is not an asset for the economy. If the state of California wants to build a new classroom building, it cannot build it out of money. It needs steel, and labor, and machinery, none of which it can get from Mr Kendrick. So it has to get them from someone else. This is what you appear to have overlooked.

  133. 133 133 Daniel

    “If the state of California wants to build a new classroom building, it cannot build it out of money. It needs steel, and labor, and machinery, none of which it can get from Mr Kendrick. So it has to get them from someone else. This is what you appear to have overlooked.”

    So what your saying is we should be repossessing three of his cars so that we can reprocess it as steel instead. All kidding aside, your hypothetical situation is less like saying, “let’s assume that we drop a feather and and bowling ball in a vacuum,” and more like saying, “what if we dropped a feather and a ball and it moved parallel to the ground instead of towards it.” You can not change most of the rules of human behavior, (i.e. people being unresponsive to a change in choice set) in your quest to prove a point. When physicists are asking us to ignore air resistance, they are simplifying the problem. What you are doing is changing a fundamental rule of consumer theory.

  134. 134 134 Stone Glasgow

    “What you keep overlooking is that money, while it can be an asset for an individual, is not an asset for the economy.”

    If Mr. Kendrick held silver certificates, redeemable on demand for silver, do those count as “assets for the economy?”

  135. 135 135 Hein

    Obviously you are (mostly*) right.

    Krugman is making the same fundamental mistake that his favourite enemies, the anti-stimulus and anti-deficit inflation hawks, are making: confusing money with wealth.

    Yes, the dead man can be taxed to reduce government deficits and the debt.
    And yes, taxing him can make the rest of us richer in terms of nominal dollars (e.g. by using the proceeds to finance a tax cut).

    But as you have pointed out, we can not become richer in terms of actual wealth by taxing dead men.

    *slight caveat: Kendrick still consumes something and he finances this consumption with the interest society pays on his capital.
    If society would take away his capital he would need to work in order to maintain his current lifestyle and/or reduce his consumption.
    Both of these would make the rest of us all richer.

  136. 136 136 Stone Glasgow

    “Although we usually assume there is a sharp line of distinction between what is money and what is not-and the law generally tries to make such a distinction- so far as the causal effects of monetary events are concerned, there is no such clear difference. What we find is rather a continuum in which objects of various degrees of liquidity, or with values which can fluctuate independently of each other, shade into each other in the degree to which they function
    as money.

    I have always found it useful to explain to students that it
    has been rather a misfortune that we describe money by a noun, and that it would be more helpful for the explanation of monetary phenomena if ‘money’ were an adjective describing a property which different things could possess to varying degrees.2 ‘Currency’ is, for this reason, more appropriate, since objects can ‘have currency’ to varying degrees and through different regions or sectors of the population.” –Friedrich Hayek, chapter ten, Denationalisation of Money.

  137. 137 137 Ken B

    @Stone Glasgow: Nice Hayek quote, very lucid. Why you think it supports your objections is a puzzle. Steve’s argument is not that grabbing Kendrick’s bits in a computer and spending them has no effect. It is that Kendrick is not the one most directly affected. Those computer memory bits are at the extreme end of Hayek’s continuum, but that does not matter to whether Kendrick’s consumption is affected. If you took (as in an example I gave earlier) theatre tickets Kendrick had no intention of every using and used them to get a seat at a sold out performance it is not Kendrick who would have lost a chance to see the show; it is the first guy in the stand-by line. And that would be true whether the tickets were the usual printed affair, or bits in a memory, or even US currency.

  138. 138 138 Stone Glasgow

    Ken,

    The quote supports my assertion that money is wealth.

    The “movie ticket” analogy is a good way to look at currency, except that with money there is no “show time.” There is no expiration of the movie tickets, and the tickets can be returned to the theater to see the show as long as the theater (the Fed banking system) is operational. The tickets are valuable indefinitely. Further, when the tickets are traded (spent) they are not returned to the theater, they are traded to other people in exchange for their assets.

    You would be correct if the tickets were turned into the theater when the government takes them, but they are not. The government takes the tickets and trades with for a submarine. The government does not take them to the theater to see the show.

    All of the tickets are returned to the theater to see the show only if people fear that the theater is going out of business, and want to see the last show.

    Further, when the theater issues 101 tickets for a show with 100 seats, it is “stealing” from people who assume there are only 100 tickets sold. That is when the harm is done. When the government takes tickets from a person and gives them to someone else, no harm is done except to the man who lost his tickets.

  139. 139 139 Stone Glasgow

    Ken,

    The quote supports my assertion that money is wealth.

    The “movie ticket” analogy is a good way to look at currency, except that with money there is no “show time.” There is no expiration of the movie tickets, and the tickets can be returned to the theater to see the show as long as the theater (the Fed banking system) is operational. The tickets are valuable indefinitely. Further, when the tickets are traded (spent) they are not returned to the theater, they are traded to other people in exchange for their assets.

    You would be correct if the tickets were turned into the theater when the government takes them, but they are not. The government takes the tickets and trades with for a submarine. The government does not take them to the theater to see the show.

    All of the tickets are returned to the theater to see the show only if people fear that the theater is going out of business, and want to see the last show.

    Further, when the theater issues 101 tickets for a show with 100 seats, it is “stealing” from people who assume there are only 100 tickets sold. That is when the harm is done. When the government takes tickets from a person and gives them to someone else, no harm is done except to the man who lost his tickets.

  140. 140 140 Tyler Lloyd

    Many have commented that increased consumption of resources by the government can actually increase the production of resources (grow the economy). You have resisted those comments by attributing the growth effects to the government spending. But doesn’t the same logic suggest that #3 (the burden on others of higher prices or interest rates as a result of greater demand) is also attributable not to the tax but to the spending (or tax reduction?). Why can’t the government tax the dead man and, rather than spending the revenue or lowering taxes, simply pay off deficits? Does this have the same effect of burdening others?

  141. 141 141 Steve Landsburg

    Tyler Lloyd: Ignoring disincentive effects, taxing the dead man to pay off deficits creates no *net* burden, but it can transfer an existing burden from one set of people to another. The burden is lowered on taxpayers in general, and raised on whoever feels the consequences of taking Mr Kendrick’s money.

  142. 142 142 Ken B

    @Stone Glasgow: “Money is wealth”. Explain that to the holders of Confederate currency or Germans Marks in 1922. Money is a claim on wealth; that is actually a different thing. And this case shows yet another example. Your argument to use an apt phrase isn’t worth a Continental.

  143. 143 143 Josh

    ‘Is it theoretically possible for a tax to have no burden, if (in this scenario) the spending targets idle resources?’

    “If the resources are permanently idle, obviously you can confiscate them without burdening anyone.”

    Isn’t that the whole point? Unless someone has all of their wealth in a swimming pool full of money, their assets likely have some value to the rest of the economy. By taxing the man’s estate, the government is forcing his estate to liquidate those assets, which is equivalent to auctioning them off and then using the proceeds as revenue.

    The asset class held by the individual is central to the debate! And when we become millionaires, we tend not to invest all our money in swimming pools full of money.

    In other words, either 2. or 3. is false, depending on whether losing idle assets constitutes a change in “lifestyle.”

    This isn’t just about semantics! It makes the whole theoretical exercise completely meaningless and irrelevant to the original story. Moreover, the journalist in question clearly used “idle” to refer to a lack of production, not consumption. The guy had four (presumably expensive) cars!

    You might not agree with the journalist’s politics, but her economics were perfectly self-consistent.

  144. 144 144 Stone Glasgow

    Ken,
    A claim on wealth is wealth. There is no line between physical wealth and immaterial wealth. It is incorrect to think of financial assets as claims on “real” or “physical” wealth, or claims on labor.

    If I invent a recipe and keep the ingredients in my head, that is wealth. If I write it down and forget, the paper is wealth.

    If I bury a gold coin in my backyard and keep a mental map of it in my head, that memory is wealth. If I write it down and forget, that paper is wealth.

    If I promise to mow your lawn and write you an IOU, that IOU is wealth.

    The thing all of you seem to be missing is that wealth does not have to be physical. It doesn’t even have to be “useful” to everyone. Wealth is absolutely anything that is valued and can be exchanged, including memories, text on a page, or a handshake promise. All of it is wealth, and it’s silly to think that there is some magical line in the sand where something moves from “physical and useful and real” wealth to a “claim” on wealth.

  145. 145 145 Stone Glasgow

    Confederate or German Marks in 1922 are the same thing as when I write you an IOU. If I die, the IOU becomes worthless. The confederate government died and its IOUs became worthless in the same way.

    The IOU I wrote and gave to you had real value, and was a real asset until I died. Thinking about it as a “claim on labor” is as incorrect as thinking that a case of wine is a “claim on feeling drunk” and that the wine has no value until it is used or consumed. Obviously, the wine has three forms of value:

    1. A store of wealth
    2. Currency/trade value
    3. Consumption value

    An IOU has the same three forms of value. The IOU is consumed (destroyed) when it is “turned in” to receive what is printed on its face.

    Modern US dollars are “turned in” when they are used to pay off bank loans. When the bank receives payment in full for a home, the dollars are removed from existence in the same way as any other IOU.

  146. 146 146 Carter

    “Stone Glasgow: What you keep overlooking is that money, while it can be an asset for an individual, is not an asset for the economy. If the state of California wants to build a new classroom building, it cannot build it out of money. It needs steel, and labor, and machinery, none of which it can get from Mr Kendrick. So it has to get them from someone else. This is what you appear to have overlooked.”

    How is the state of California different than an individual considering neither can print money? The state of California DOES require money to build a new classroom and that money has to come from somewhere other than it’s printing press.

  147. 147 147 Stone Glasgow

    Landsburg confuses the meaning of the word “burden.” He thinks that because we know that government spending always burdens someone, that because Kendrick does not care about losing millions, he is not burdened, and that therefore, someone else must be hurt. Taxes are not a burden, per se. They take assets from people, which is only presumed to be a burden.

    He is correct in stating that others will feel pain, but Kendrick still loses his wealth, even if he doesn’t feel pain. If Kendrick had accumulated his wealth in gold, and loaned it out to a business, the government would be confiscating the loan contracts and canceling them. The tax hurts both Kendrick (who doesn’t care) and the business that received his loan.

  148. 148 148 Steve Landsburg

    Stone Glasgow:

    The tax hurts both Kendrick (who doesn’t care)…

    I take being “hurt” or “burdened” to mean that something happens to you that you don’t like. It appears that your entire point is that you’d prefer to use the words “hurt” and “burden” in some other way. This is not a terribly interesting point.

  149. 149 149 Ken B

    Stone Glasgow resolutely ignores the point. Long past the point I think where simple misunderstanding explains it; we are into willful refusal territory here.

  150. 150 150 Daniel

    Steve,

    You’re whole point is that taxes can be shifted to others. This is not a terribly interesting point.

  151. 151 151 Stone Glasgow

    Ken,
    Perhaps you would enjoy addressing my objections instead of brandishing ad hominem attacks.

  152. 152 152 Stone Glasgow

    Steve,

    I do not mean to use “burden” in some other way. I mean to show that when you say that “when government taxes, someone is burdened,” you are technically wrong in the case of the mentally insane.

  153. 153 153 Ken B

    @Daniel: No, the point is the burden, incidence, may not be what it seems. Isn’t that important? If you think you are taxing A but really you are taxing B, doesn’t that matter? Especially if you justify the tax because “A deserves to pay”?

  154. 154 154 Ken B

    @Stone Glasgow: I did answer your objections. So did Steve. You just ignore the answers is all.

    Pointing out that you don’t seem to care isn’t ad hominem by the way. I am not attempting to refute your point by attacking you, which is what ad hominem means. It the name of a logical fallacy. There are others. For example you cite Hayek showing that wealth can be money; this in no way proves that money is wealth, that’s a fallacy.

  155. 155 155 Stone Glasgow

    Ken,

    Can you please define the term “money?” Perhaps that is why we do not agree.

  156. 156 156 Stone Glasgow

    Here is the footnote following my quote from Hayek:

    “This definition was established by Carl Menger [43], whose work also ought to have finally disposed of the medieval conception that money, or the value of money, was a creation of the state.

    Vissering [61], p. 9, reports that in early times the Chinese expressed their notions of money by a term meaning literally ‘current merchandise’.

    The now more widely used expression that money is the most liquid asset comes, of course (as Carlile [8] pointed out as early as 190I), to the same thing. To serve as a widely accepted medium of exchange is the only function which an object must perform to qualify as money, though a generally accepted medium of exchange will generally acquire also the further functions of unit of account, store of value, standard of deferred payment, etc. The definition of money as ‘means of payment’ is, however, purely circular, since this concept presupposed debts incurred in terms ofmoney. Cf. L. v. Mises [45], pp. 34 ff.”

  157. 157 157 Stone Glasgow

    Mises, in his book The Theory of Money and Credit is also clear in defining money as wealth. Both Mises and Hayek describe money as the most liquid commodity. The most liquid commodity (most liquid wealth) is used as a medium of exchange, and functions as money. It is the most “current” asset.

    There is no difference between the “most current” commodity and other commodities except that one is the most liquid. Just because it is most liquid does not change the fact that it is a commodity (wealth).

  158. 158 158 Stone Glasgow

    Mises states:

    …those goods that were originally the most marketable became common media of exchange; that is, goods into which all sellers of other goods first converted their wares and which it paid every would-be buyer of any other commodity to acquire first. And as soon as those commodities that were relatively most marketable had become common media of exchange, there was an increase in the difference between their marketability and that of all other commodities, and this in its turn further strengthened and broadened their position as media of exchange.

    Thus the requirements of the market have gradually led to the selection of certain commodities as common media of exchange. The group of commodities from which these were drawn was originally large, and differed from country to country; but it has more and more contracted. Whenever a direct exchange seemed out of the question, each of the parties to a transaction would naturally endeavor to exchange his superfluous commodities, not merely for more marketable commodities in general, but for the most marketable commodities; and among these again he would naturally prefer whichever particular commodity was the most marketable of all. The greater the marketability of the goods first acquired in indirect exchange, the greater would be the prospect of being able to reach the ultimate objective without further maneuvering. Thus there would be an inevitable tendency for the less marketable of the series of goods used as media of exchange to be one by one rejected until at last only a single commodity remained, which was universally employed as a medium of exchange; in a word, money.

  159. 159 159 Ken B

    @Stone Glasgow: Try answering the argument made. The dead man’s consumption is not changed; how then does the dead man pay the tax? Follow whats happens to the goods and services and who consumes them, just try it, and you will see the point.

  160. 160 160 Jon

    If we were absolutely sure that Kendrick and his heirs would never spend the money (e.g. instead of taxing it we burned it or glued it to a board), then taxing Kendrick and printing money would have the same result.

    However, this is not the real world. Without the tax, Kendrick has the option to consume and may exercise it in the future; we do not know. Taxation reduces that option directly, while printing the money does so only incrementally to the extent it adds to inflation.

    The government can spend less, print money and generate inflation in the long run, or tax people. If it taxes people, it has to tax people who have the money to pay the tax (e.g. Kendrick). Spending less is an attractive solution; until people actually see what is getting cut. A majority of people do not want the big sources of government spending cut.

  161. 161 161 Stone Glasgow

    Ken,

    Imagine an island with a government and five people who are mentally retarded invalids, sick in bed with no bodily function and do nothing all day but sit in a chair, and they are fed by machines until they die. They all own 10 gold coins.

    There is no one on the island except one man with a gun (government) and the sick people who own gold coins.

    When the man with the gun takes all of their coins, no one is “burdened,” and no one “consumes less.” The only thing that the tax changes is the *ownership* of the gold coins.

    A proper statement would be “taxation always makes someone lose their assets.”

  162. 162 162 Steve Landsburg

    Stone Glasgow: As far as I can tell, you are still quibbling over the use of words without expressing any substantive disagreement with what everyone else understands perfectly well. Does that strike you as a fair assessment?

  1. 1 The Rich Man Who Can’t be Taxed — Marginal Revolution
  2. 2 The man who paid too little…. « Stay Right for Life
  3. 3 続・死人 by Steven Landsburg – 道草
  4. 4 Gedankenraum » Blog Archiv » Economists disagree on who pays if you tax “the rich”
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