Monday, February 18, 2013

The Lifelong Endowment

T99 over at Grim's Hall recently put up a post called "The wages of consent". It points out that:

A welfare state threatens to become a system in which the most valuable service some voters can offer the market is to elect a politician who will drain resources from those who didn't elect him.  The politician pays for this service by routing a fraction of the loot back to his loyal voters.  The welfare state differs from our earliest attempts at state-administered charity in that the politician no longer is commandeering and redistributing only a small fraction of the nation's wealth to a small number of the most desperately needy.  Now he's commandeering from 49% of voters and redistributing to 51%.  Once the politician realizes that that's the path to staying in office (where he makes a handy living by skimming off the top of the redistributed funds), we are well on our way back to a command economy, one in which a centralized power directs where most of the resources shall be routed.  That way lies poverty for everyone.

and asks:

How do we stop a pernicious system of votes for hire?

I believe the ship has sailed as far as ever getting back to a system where people in the United States don't expect money to be taken from some of us to and given to others of us, so the fact that T99 is not asking, "How can we convince 51% of the people that wanting money to be redistributed to them is a Very Bad Thing?" seems to me to be a step in the right direction. That is, she is not asking how we can do the impossible but, rather, whether there's a way to do the maybe-perhaps-possible. There may be.

Quite a while back, someone who read my blog emailed me about a plan he had to address this very issue. Called the Lifelong Endowment*, the plan takes the government out of the equation by setting up a direct transfer of money from those who have more to those who have less. The plan document** detailing the Lifelong Endowment summarizes it thusly:

It assesses sixteen percent of all personal income and retained corporate earnings on a monthly basis, and distributes the full proceeds in equal shares to each adult citizen and quarter shares to minor citizens. Neither the assessment paid nor the benefit received is subject to federal income tax. [snip] Two pieces of companion legislation complete the proposal. The first eliminates the Social Security Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance program (OASDI), and returns all employer and employee payroll taxes to the employee as wages. It also guarantees beneficiaries a total Lifelong Endowment benefit not less than the total OASDI benefit they would otherwise receive. The second measure is a corporate income tax rate reduction sufficient to make the proposal revenue-neutral for corporations.

The math here is simple and lovely. The Lifelong Endowment is:

- Flat in assessment: everyone pays the same percent.
- Flat in distribution: each adult gets the same as every other adult; each child gets the same as every other child
- Perfectly redistributive in effect: the poorer you are, the greater your net positive; once you become rich enough, the effect is a net negative

Thinking about this approach does require that we accept the inevitability of some kind of redistribution and turn our attention to minimizing its ill effects. Anyone who is still attempting to eliminate redistribution itself will not find this approach helpful. I encourage everyone, however, to think about how various scenarios would play out under this approach. When I did that, I usually found that this approach worked quite well even in those situations where I was sure I could find a fatal flaw.

How does the Lifelong Endowment "stop a pernicious system of votes for hire"? By getting the Federal government out of the redistribution business. This happens first because the sixteen percent assessment does not flow to the Federal government. Rather:

The collection of the tax and the apportionment of its receipts occur monthly. It is administered through accounts provided and maintained for that purpose by the banks of the United States, the choice among which is made according to the convenience of each individual.

The government has no control over this money and is unable to "make a handy living by skimming off the top of the redistributed funds". It "has no role other than to enforce [the plan's] operation". There is no reason to offer votes in exchange for loot since the politician has no loot to give. There are thus no special interest groups arguing for greater support for their group.

Second, because they have no control over the money, the government and its employees and sub-contractors also have no control over recipients of the money. In speaking of those who currently "look to … [government programs] to satisfy basic needs", the plan document says:

They must accept the definitions and priorities set by the [government program] for the problems that they face and for the solutions to those problems; but these and all other aspects of the [government program] emerge from public-choice processes that reflect interests unrelated to their own. They must forego productive activity on their own behalf in order to meet program eligibility requirements, but attend without fail to unproductive dealings with executive bureaucracies. Both the [government program] and the relationship of citizens to it depend solely on public-choice and resulting political factors that again reflect interests other than their own; but the possible (or threatened) loss of their [government program]-client status can command their support for those interests nonetheless. Through a combination of requirements, prohibitions, and incentives, current assistance programs are thus destructive of the personal, economic, and political liberties of those who must rely on them.

The Lifelong Endowment removes this power from the government. The money is distributed to everyone equally with no intervention from or direction by the government. Recipients need not adopt or forego specific behaviors in order to be "allowed" to receive this money; they need not support policies they don't like in order to elect the politicians who will continue to "give" them the money they need to keep body and soul together:

Citizens are not beholden for their benefit to the patronage of a political faction, but rely instead on the general prosperity that both their own efforts and the genius of their shared civic endeavor help to create.

The Lifelong Endowment also means that people who need financial assistance but would like to support themselves don't have to worry about losing the assistance when they start trying to help themselves. A young mother can take an entry level job without worrying that she'll lose subsidized day care: she goes right on getting her share of the Lifelong Endowment. Even if a big chunk of her salary goes to pay for child care her family is no worse off than it was before and she has her foot in the door of the work world. If a man with an injury that makes it hard for him to work 40 hours a week at his previous well-paid job finds an easy, low-paying job 15 hours a week, he doesn't have to worry he'll lose his disability payment:

All citizens alike can exercise and develop their personal autonomy, defining and ranking the challenges of life in accordance with their own perceived interests. All citizens have the identical incentive to pursue their economic self-interest through productive and voluntary market exchange.

The Lifelong Endowment has effects beyond interrupting what T99 calls "a pernicious system of votes for hire". One of the most important is that it undercuts the idea of a limited pie where more for the rich somehow means less for the not rich. Instead we are all tied together: the more money the Koch brothers make, the more money we all get. Everyone now has a rooting interest in policies which encourage making money. The Lifelong Endowment does this by:

… tying the benefit amount directly to national prosperity. It thereby enlists the self-interest of citizens toward the prosperity of their neighbors, and thus toward creating a nation where both they and their neighbors can prosper.

In other words, once the Lifelong Endowment is in place, proposing a plan that would limit the prosperity of anyone in the country would mean limiting the prosperity of everyone in the country. When a politician starts railing against those who are making too much money, everyone in the country can do simple arithmetic to figure out how much of that "too much money" will flow into the Lifelong Endowment and thence to them - and can see clearly that if that "too much money" flows into the government tax coffers instead, everyone will see far less direct benefit from it.

Although the plan document does not mention it, there is another aspect of the Lifelong Endowment I think is important. It brings into sharp focus the question, "How much of my income am I willing to give to other people?" That, after all, is really what's happening with all Federal income support programs: Social Security; disability payments; unemployment benefits; welfare; food stamps; housing subsidies. All of it. I am giving some of my income to other people: I get taxed; you get money. However, the Rube Goldberg contraption that funnels my taxes to your wallet is so opaque that the connection between the two simply can't be grasped. This makes it very easy to agree to an increased benefit for Person A because it appears to have virtually no impact on Person B's taxes - even if Person B is me. If we extend unemployment benefits for another six months, it may cost each of us, I don't know, $1 a year. That seems like a small price to pay to help those who need assistance. But $1 here and $1 there and before you know it you're talking either confiscatory tax rates or a multi-trillion dollar deficit.

WIth the Lifelong Endowment, we're starting from the other end. We aren't asking, "How much money do we want the needy to have?" but "How much money are we wiling to ante up?" If 16% seems like a lot to be assessed but we run the numbers and it turns out that the government is already redistributing the amount of money that a 16% assessment will provide, well, guess what? That means someone somewhere is already chipping in at least 16% to provide that money. Or, more likely, our grandchildren will be doing so here shortly. In other words, this approach also brings into sharp focus the realization that money given to people must be coming from somewhere and that somewhere is other people, either currently existing or soon to be born into crushing debt.***

I do have some concerns about the Lifelong Endowment as currently proposed. First, the plan leaves intact existing Federal income support programs. Since the Lifelong Endowment would leave most of the people currently receiving them above the means-testing line, the idea is that those programs would be unused without ever being repealed. I have serious reservations about this. I believe eventually the poverty line for participating in those programs would simply be raised and we would end up with a Lifelong Endowment and massive Federal income support programs. (The framework for that is already in place with the trend toward redefining poverty from an absolute condition to a relative one.) I would prefer that the existing income support programs be discontinued.****

That said, the plan document is not just about defining the Lifelong Endowment: it is also about building a coalition to pass it. Leaving the existing Federal income support programs in place may be necessary to build that coalition:

… the continuing availability of current aid programs … serve[s] to reassure voters that their support of the proposal carries little risk.

I am also hesitant about the proposed distribution formula; I lean toward simply giving each adult a full share and children no share. My concern here is about children being seen as little ATMs, whether we're talking about families getting more money the more children they have or divorcing couples whose child custody fights suddenly get much uglier. However, I can see the appeal of providing shares for children so I go back and forth on this issue.

Then there is the assessment on retained corporate earnings. I am leery of corporate income taxes in general so this makes me uncomfortable. However, again, the plan is designed to build a coalition to actually enact the Lifelong Endowment. It may be that the assessment on corporations is necessary to make the Lifelong Endowment large enough to be embraced by a "hyper majority" and/or that requiring corporations to "pay their fair share" may be required to garner support on the Left. Furthermore, the plan envisions an offsetting income tax reduction so the effect on corporations is neutral. We should be aware, however, that once we go this down this road it will probably be impossible to ever remove the Lifelong Endowment assessment against corporations. That means we will always have, a minimum corporate income tax (at least one retained earnings) of 16%.

Finally, what keeps the same "pernicious system of votes for hire" from kicking in and resulting in politicians increasing Lifelong Endowment assessment from 16% to 18%, then 20%, then 25%?

Nothing. Which is why it would be nice to set this up as a Constitutional amendment if possible.***** The plan's author takes the long view here:

The proposal envisions that some variant of a Lifelong Endowment would eventually be adopted as a constitutional amendment. An effort to curtail government powers rather than expand them has the advantage of tactical flexibility: this and other restrictions of government spending can proceed at first through legislation, and their effects can be studied and debated, before the more difficult task of adopting a constitutional remedy is ever attempted.

My own shorter view is that while this type of assessment creep will be a danger if the Lifelong Endowment is enacted through legislation, I believe it is less of a danger when how much is really being paid for a benefit is front and center. It can sound very reasonable to say, "Poor people need more money. Let's increase everyone's food stamp allowance." It can sound even more reasonable to say, "Poor people deserve better food. Let's loosen up requirements for food stamps on top of Lifelong Endowment shares." It should sound pretty unreasonable, however, to say, "Getting 16% of your money isn't enough; poor people need 20%." And if that doesn't sound unreasonable, we're pretty much toast anyhow.

So. Comments, questions, problems, screams of outrage?



* I like the name "Lifelong Endowment" because it removes the word "redistribution" and the word "entitlement". It emphasizes the idea that we are all in this together. It removes the stigma of government handouts. It also removes the implication of charity which is a serious consideration if a plan is going to garner support from the Left.

** The Lifelong Endowment plan does not exist in a website although a summary of it can be found in this comment to a PJ Media post. When I quote the plan, I am quoting with the author's permission from our correspondence, including an approximately thirty-page document detailing the plan. Throughout this post, I have snipped specific dollar calculations and amounts when I quote from the plan document. They are not the focus of my post and they are based on older data and need to be updated.

*** I disagree with the statement by Fabius Maximus here that "Proposals like this are dross unless we see the numbers". If the plan is a way out of our current situation then we figure out if the numbers can work. If it causes more problems than it solves then the numbers are irrelevant.

**** I believe health care/insurance issues must be handled separately so I would treat Medicare and Medicaid separately.

***** In the form of the plan outlined at the comment to a PJ Media post, the author proposed a variable rate, set by an independent board. This proposal was not part of the plan document I have. I am extremely leery of a variable rate since such rates seem to travel in only one direction.


Grim said...

My initial sentiment is to share your sense of interest. It sounds at first like the sort of thing I shouldn't like, but as a way out of the death spiral... well, on those terms many things become more likable!

Elise said...

My sentiments exactly. When this plan was first described to me, my sentiment was, "Why tell me? I'm on the wrong side for this." But further discussion and, especially, thinking about how this approach would impact so many issues, made me decide it may well be the best shot we have.

The type of redistribution we have now is woven through the warp and woof of society: immigration; out of wedlock pregnancies; unemployment benefits; etc. Our approach to all of them changes - I think for the better - if we take this approach.

When I start the New Federalist Party, I'm going to make this a plank. :+)

Grim said...

The type of redistribution we have now is woven through the warp and woof of society: immigration; out of wedlock pregnancies; unemployment benefits; etc.

I had a lengthy discussion with Tex recently about economics, in which I was trying to explain that. If we describe the economic system we actually inhabit, almost none of it really looks like a market system any more. It's become a nest of redistribution, such that it is impossible to describe it accurately in the old market terms. There is a rump market, which is drawn on as a kind of engine, but the economy itself largely works on redistribution -- some majority of Americans 'make their living' in that way, and the Federal Government is the largest player.

Philip said...

Thanks, Elise, for posting this. I hope it interests your readers.

I'll be happy to answer questions or explain trains of thought if anyone would like.

Elise said...

Thanks, Philip, glad you're around.

Elise said...

I think there's a lot to that argument, Grim. It would be interesting to see headcount on how many people rely on government redistribution directly (welfare, social security, unemployment) plus how many rely on it via work: those who work in the agencies that provide it, those who work in subcontractors tied to it, and so on. I think part of the trick would be deciding where to draw the line. Do you include K-12 teachers, for example? Some of the money schools get comes from the Federal government and is arguable a form of redistribution.

Grim said...

I think you ought to do so, yes. The rest of the money comes from property taxes, usually. That means two families in a given district pay different amounts for the same schooling their kids both receive. Indeed, if you have no children, you pay to educate the children of those who have. (Thanks, by the way.)

It's a conceptual shift. What is the status of what I earn? Under the old model, Adam Smith's model, what I earn is mine: if the state takes of it, it is taking my money and owes me some sort of good value for it. Under the model we actually have, what I earn is not mine at first: before it becomes mine, it is to be taken of by the state at a rate they will determine, depending on how much they think I deserve it. Thus, they have first claim, for the express purpose of redistribution. The fruits of my labor do not come to me until they have decided how much is their share. Nor does this prevent them from coming back for more after they've had their bite, at different rates for every transaction of any kind (or, now, non-transactions of certain kinds).

Elise said...

You're welcome. That seems like a worthwhile expense to me.

The part of school funding you're talking about is a local issue (municipality or county or, if you're NJ, State thanks to our judges). I take your point about the change in viewpoint - why, oh, why, didn't The Declaration say, "life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness" - but it's important to me to make a distinction between what is happening at the Federal level and what is happening at the State/local level.