Perhaps the most widespread industrial policy obstacle is the “knowledge problem.” In “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” economist F.A. Hayek explained that the information needed to secure the best use of scarce national resources “never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.” Because this information is unique and ever-changing, central planners cannot discern it via aggregate, retrospective statistics: “The continuous flow of goods and services is maintained by constant deliberate adjustments, by new dispositions made every day in the light of circumstances not known the day before, by B stepping in at once when A fails to deliver.”
The stolen IRS data provide the story with voyeur appeal, but it turns out to be a bait-and-switch. ProPublica substitutes a magazine’s estimate of wealth appreciation, which never appears on the stolen tax returns, to falsify income. Using this deception the site calculates its “true tax rate.” ProPublica laments that taxpayers are acting “perfectly legally” in not paying a federal wealth tax, which doesn’t exist.
That wealth is taxed only when converted into income or on death may be an outrage to those in government who want to spend that wealth, but it is a purposeful, enlightened policy that lets wealth work as the nation’s seed corn, making America the richest nation in the history of the world. That wealth in turn makes it possible for the government today to provide $45,000 a year in transfer payments to the average household in the bottom 20% of American earners.
Let’s say you collect baseball cards. On paper, your collection is worth a bundle. But its real value is realized only when you sell it. Do you think the IRS should tax you every year for what your collection could be worth if you sold it? Do you want the IRS to tax you for the value of your wedding ring—not at purchase, but forever—even if you’re never going to sell it?
The same principle applies to other unrealized gains. If your stock portfolio increases in value, you get taxed on your gains when you sell.
ProPublica ignores all this. “We compared how much in taxes the 25 richest Americans paid each year to how much Forbes estimated their wealth grew in that same time period,” they explain. “We’re going to call this their true tax rate.”
Except it’s not a true tax rate.
First, this suggests that the only taxes they’ve paid are income taxes, when in reality they’ve paid a slew of other taxes: capital gains, property, sales, etc. Second, wealth is not income.
Normally, economists (and politicians) argue that competition is beneficial because it disciplines companies to provide good products to people at low prices. The exception is government, where they argue that competition is bad. They seem to like it when Wal-Mart offers customers everyday low prices, but when Ireland does the same for its taxpayers, it’s called a race to the bottom.
If low Irish corporate tax rates were harmful, shouldn’t the citizens of Ireland be the ones complaining? They seem to be happy with the results of the intergovernmental competition. Those who are complaining aren’t the Irish, they are Ireland’s competitors. Those competitors are conspiring to prevent other countries from offering taxpayers a better deal.
President Biden and Secretary Yellen are advocating the extension of a cartel of governments to limit intergovernmental competition. Private companies that conspire to limit competition are guilty of antitrust violations and governments take action against them. Meanwhile, governments are doing that exact same thing and claiming it is in the public interest.
So, there is a distinctively 2021 cultural contradiction of K-12 education: Pupils who are assumed to be unfolding flowers of spontaneous individuality are nevertheless treated as empty vessels into which government-approved political doctrines should be poured. In 2022, multitudes of parents are properly going to take their anger about all this to polling places.