I just spent a little while trying and failing to construct a homework problem for my honors class. Although it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, I thought it might serve as a good illustration of how economists (often) think about income redistribution.
The idea is that different people are born with different talents, and that if it were possible for us all to meet in a shadowy pre-birth world (what the philosopher John Rawls called “behind the veil of ignorance”), we’d want to insure against landing in the shallow end of the gene pool — so we’d probably agree that the lucky ones — those with a lot of talent — would help to take care of the rest.
The further idea is that because we’d presumably all have voluntarily signed on to such an agreement, there’s at least a plausible case for enforcing it. (I’ve argued elsewhere that this plausible case does pretty much nothing to justify the actual sorts of redistribution that are practiced by, say, the United States government — but for present purposes, that’s neither here nor there.)
The big problem is to figure out exactly what terms we’d have all agreed on. Jim Mirrlees won a Nobel Prize for a major attack this problem. But I don’t want to ask my college sophomores to digest a Nobel-worthy body of work, so my goal is to construct a sort of baby version of the Mirrlees approach — which I hope might also interest at least one or two blog readers.
Now if governments were omniscient and omnipotent, the problem would be pretty easy — you’d take a whole lot from the rich and give a whole lot to the poor, and you’d forbid talented people to respond by working less.
In practice, though, governments face a lot of constraints. The one I want to focus on is that our talents and/or incomes might be at least partially invisible to the government. You can’t “take from the rich” if you don’t know who the rich are.
One solution is, instead of taking directly from the rich, to tax things that only rich people buy.
So my idea was to imagine that everyone has a natural talent, and an associated natural income, ranging from 0 to 1. You can spend all your income on corn (in whatever quantity you can afford), or you can spend part of your income to buy a car, for a price of 1/2. Obviously, only people with incomes over 1/2 can even consider buying a car, and even some of them might prefer not to.