Widening gap between rich and poor a challenge for capitalism

Capitalism is a well-known paradigm that attempts to answer the question of what constitutes an economically just society through the production and distribution of economic goods. It is a classic example of a paradigm that was developed by studying what was going on in the real world and reducing it to abstract theory.

As practiced in most societies, capitalism is an inevitable outgrowth of the human instinct to trade goods with each other. This instinct seems to be as strongly hard-wired into the DNA of our species as the instinct to reproduce and has defied all attempts to suppress it. Various forms of capitalism have, over time and across countries, improved the lives of billions of people, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s adoption of a form of state capitalism in 1976. But how effective is it when it comes to the just distribution of goods among members of society?

A late-night television wag once quipped that paradigms were the last refuge of the intellectually challenged. Preconceptions can be a useful starting point for organizing great masses of empirical evidence, but it is prudent not to edit the evidence to fit our normative theories about what the real world ought to look like.

This was the mistake made by the Medieval European philosophers who based their cosmology of an earth-centered universe on accepted Christian myths carefully propped up with Aristotelian logic. The result was the need for constant tinkering with their theoretical models to accommodate a growing body of astronomical evidence about how the known planets actually moved.

Not to mention centuries of embarrassment for the Roman Catholic Church after it forced Galileo to recant the evidence of his own eyes that supported the “heretical” sun-centered cosmology of Copernicus.

As capitalism matured and came to dominate western societies during the last two centuries, it attracted the attention of various writers who developed paradigms to explain it. Beginning with Adam Smith and proceeding through John Stewart Mill to today’s stained glass theorists of the Austrian and Chicago schools, these writers with the regularity of Swiss trains sought to purify their paradigms and give them a hard core of academic logic.

In Smith’s world, competition among those who pursue their own interest promotes the general welfare of society more effectively than the efforts of any individual who might deliberately set out to promote it. As he simply put it: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

Critics argue that, as currently structured, capitalism disproportionately benefits the wealthy and powerful. They say it exacerbates both economic inequality and other pressing societal problems, such as environmental issues.

Stated differently, one downside of capitalism as currently practiced is that it results in the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. This has led to unprecedented stagnation in American social mobility and been a major factor in the anger many Americans are expressing.

This condition is a real challenge in a country where, just this past November, we learned just how deeply economic and demographic factors has divided the electorate. To paraphrase Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, it is a country in which half the people absolutely hate the other half. The relationship between the haves and have-nots is dramatized by the media and by politicians firing up their base.

In any case, the practical test of a vision’s standing in the real world is whether it can consistently pass the French Revolution Test. That is, whether it can win acceptance by a sufficiently large majority of a society’s members to withstand the inevitable assaults from those who find it objectionable and seek to replace it with their own visions – by force, if other means fail.

Originally Published: February 18, 2017

Put a money-back guarantee on infrastructure work

Americans are told that the most serious problem facing the nation’s transportation infrastructure is a lack of money. Perhaps people would be willing to pay more if they receive a money-back guarantee in return.

Today’s roadway funding depends primarily on motor-vehicle fuel taxes and state and local appropriations. But federal fuel tax revenues no longer keep pace with needs because of the self-serving assumption that it’s become politically impossible to “raise taxes.” Everyone wants better roads and bridges, but almost no one wants to pay for them.

All this makes finding adequate funding to rehabilitate the nation’s highway system, add new lanes and highway corridors a major challenge. Between 2005 and 2015, there were two five-year federal surface transportation reauthorization bills and 34 short-term funding extensions. To maintain the committed level of funding, the federal government was forced to raid the General Fund for an average of $10 billion per year to supplement the dwindling Highway Trust Fund

Even so, Congress struggled to find the revenues to support a long-term bill without increasing the fuel tax, which has remained at 18.4 cents per gallon for cars since 1991. Congressmen have moved in unison to avoid dealing with an increase in the federal fuel tax.

In real terms, fuel tax revenue is actually projected to decline as the nation’s motor vehicle fleet becomes more fuel efficient. It is safe to say that the fuel tax is like a marriage that dies long before divorce papers are filed.

At the same time, state and local government budgets are increasingly burdened with funding demands for education, fighting crime, better security against terrorist threats and a host of other deserving services. Roadway funding inevitability gets shortchanged which is relatively easy to do, since it takes a while for the impact to become apparent.

A new U.S. Department of Transportation “conditions and performance” report estimates that there is a $926 billion backlog of needed highway and transit infrastructure projects, and that many more billions more will be needed to keep up with demand over the next 20 years. The congressionally mandated biennial report identifies an $836 billion highway and bridge backlog.

The public can quibble about the size of these numbers, just as maritime historians do about the size of the iceberg that sank the Titanic. But their magnitude is so enormous that it scarcely matters whether the estimates are off by 5 or 10 percent. What matters is that the needs are enormous, and the longer you wait to address them, the worse they become.

Senate Democrats just unveiled a 10-year, $1 trillion infrastructure plan that includes $210 billion to repair “crumbling” roads and bridges, but they are vague about how to finance it other than through direct federal spending. During the campaign, President Trump also called for a $1 trillion infrastructure investment that proposed leveraging new revenues and using public-private partnerships to incentivize investment and spare taxpayers from bearing the burden.

At one end of the funding spectrum are people who think the public should pay for it via tolls. At the other end are those who argue that the benefits transportation infrastructure provides aren’t confined to users, so society as a whole should pay out of general tax revenues. Between these extremes lies a range of payment mechanisms.

But for a plan to be accepted by American motorists, it must be perceived to deliver superior travel service with appropriate regard for equity and environmental considerations. One thought is to pair any increase in taxes or user fees with a money-back performance guarantee so customers can rest assure that they will get guaranteed travel-time savings in return for paying for access to surface transportation such as highways. This gives the travelling public confidence that they are getting their money’s worth.

The rapid introduction of intelligent transportation technologies facilitates an efficient way to implement a money-back guarantee. The result would be a dramatically transformed approach to transportation infrastructure.

originally published: February 4, 2017