We Must Stop Thinking the Rich Are Better

Matt BruenigMatt Bruenig is back in the land on the public intellectual, The UBI Already Exists for the One Percent. In the article, he notes that roughly 30 percent of all income in the United States comes in the form of capital. That is: 30 percent of the money made each year comes not from work but just from capitalists owning things. A total of 10% of our nation’s income is paid out to the top one percent in this form. That is: they don’t work for it; they just sit back and get checks sent to them. This is effectively a universal basic income (UBI) — except it isn’t universal; it just goes to the very richest among us.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We could just take that 30 percent and distribute it evenly to everyone in society. It is, after all, a shared resource. Bruenig compares it to the Alaska Permanent Fund, where everyone who lives in Alaska gets an equal share of the capital gains from the oil that is pumped out of the ground. So why don’t we do this more generally? Well, obviously, there are reasons. Even ask poor people and they will tell you: if people don’t have to work, they will just become a bunch of loafers and society will fall apart.

Why Do We Trust the Rich?

Bruenig is making a very limited point, “If you have a problem with this, but not the current arrangement where capital income is paid out in huge sums to small fractions of our society, then your issue is not really with passive income.” And that is certainly true. But I look at it from a broader perspective. The problem is that humans are hierarchical. And as much as we may think we have grown past the days of feudal lords, we really haven’t. Almost everyone I know believes what is the great lie of our economic system: the rich are different from you and me.

For most Americans, that means that not having to work doesn’t corrupt the rich while it does the poor. The interesting thing is that Fitzgerald, who we get that misquote from, felt exactly the opposite. He felt that great wealth hindered the rich. It’s funny that people have gotten the impression that Fitzgerald had a fascination with the rich. Have they not read his books? It’s like saying that Steinbeck had a fascination with floods and mice.

The truth is that we don’t know. If we distributed all the passive income of the US equally, each man, woman, and child would be given a bit less than $16,000 per year. I don’t think that would be enough money to cause everyone to sit on their couches and watch video games. The experience I have with people is that having a basic income to fall back on would make them more likely to take risks. We might have flying cars now if those tens of millions of poor people had been able to do something productive rather than scraping to get by.

The Problem Is Our Sociology

We have to get past this idea that the rich actually deserve their wealth. That just isn’t the way our economic system works. But I can understand why the rich believe it. What I don’t understand is why the poor are so fond of this myth. Why do poor children have poor parents and vise versa? It’s like we live in the Third Reich and believe that everything is determined by genetics. But if you really believe that Donald Trump is rich because of the genes his father gave him and not the money he gave him, you’re an idiot.

This is why I see more and more that we have to get past politics. We need to change the way we think. Our problems are sociological. If we can see the way we are as a society, the political and economic solutions are trivial.

The Doctors’ Cartel We Don’t Care About

Dean Baker on Doctors' CartelBreaking the taxi industry cartel’s and promoting Uber has been somewhat of a cause célèbre among economists in recent years. Any card carrying economist can give you the two minute tirade on the evils of the taxi cartel and the benefits of Uber…

What is striking is that the enthusiasm for the virtues of competition seems to disappear when we switch the topic from the taxi cartel to the doctors’ cartel. Doctors actually have been far more effective than taxi companies in limiting competition. Doctors largely get to set standards of care, which not surprisingly requires twice as high a percentage of highly paid specialists as in other wealthy countries. They also restrict the number of doctors with a wonderfully protectionist rule that prohibits doctors from practicing in the United States unless they have completed a US residency program. This means that even well-established doctors in places like Germany, France, and Canada would face arrest if they attempted to practice medicine in the United States.

As a result of this cartel, doctors in the US earn on average more than $250,000 a year, putting the average doctor not far below the one percent threshold, even assuming no other family income. This is roughly twice the pay as the average doctor earns in other wealthy countries.

It is striking that the doctors’ cartel gets so much less attention from economists than the taxi cartel. After all, we spend close to $250 billion a year on doctors compared to $6 billion a year on taxis. I could suggest that the lack of interest is due to the fact that many economists have parents, siblings, or children who are doctors, but I wouldn’t be that rude.

–Dean Baker
Economists, Doctors’ Cartels, and Uber