Ideology Privatization Tax

Some thoughts on social democracy starting from a Fraser Institute graph

I’ve been meaning to post something on a chart from a Fraser Institute report for a while but slept on it. The chart comes from Fraser’s annual Consumer Tax Report and is supposed to show the different paths taken by how much households pay in taxes and how much they spend on basic goods like food and housing. 141209 fraser chart

In one way, this chart represents a good news story for the right. Capitalism is fulfilling one of its major promises: the cost of the basic goods is decreasing relative to household budgets – in the aggregate, which given an increasingly unequal distribution of income means that many budgets feel this very differently. Not only that, but the welfare state is slowly shrinking. Looking closely at the chart (showing the Fraser Institute’s version of the data), we see that the relative tax take is falling since about the turn of the millennium. Of course, the chart is riddled with errors (in short, the Fraser Institute either uses too many taxes or too little income in its measures) but better OECD data shows roughly the same trend, at least for taxes.

141209 canada tax-gdp

Ironically, while a story about lower spending on necessities could be a success story (capitalism works!), of course, that’s not the point of the exercise. Instead, the chart is intended to incite anger about taxes. The big caveat being to ignore the services these taxes actually pay for: the much-lower tax bill from 50 or 60 years ago is before universal healthcare, the Canada Pension Plan and other major elements of Canada’s welfare state. Yet in its ideological fervour, the Institute might be on the right track, because what the chart shows is in fact not just a success story but the changing nature of consumption. It illustrates how what economists once called the “subsistence wage” – where subsistence is not like a fixed number of calories, square feet and so on but culturally-relative and so varies according to time and place – has changed: most strikingly, what part of consumption is privately-provided and what part is socialized and provided by the state.

Economic theory Workers

Someone is making slightly more than you and this report says it’s time for it to stop!

Here’s a familiar refrain: “Someone’s wages rose faster than someone else’s: report”. This depersonalized version sounds about as cynical as it should especially since the first someone is usually not a CEO whose wages are actually rising faster than everyone else’s – it’s that fat cat across the street, like you know, the garbage collector or maybe the admin assistant at your community centre. Or at least that’s who it is in this case as the headline actually reads, “Municipal employees’ wages rose twice as fast as provincial public sector: report.”

The report in question is one commissioned by the British Columbia government to put pressure on the wages of municipal workers, or even bring centralized bargaining to the still-autonomous municipal sector. The specific claims in the report as well as the shortcomings of its method have been thoroughly debunked by interested parties, both CUPE and the Union of BC Municipalities.

I want to use this as an example of something I seem to come across a lot lately… For beyond the wage comparisons, the economic indicator most prominently referenced in this report is the rate of inflation. More and more, it seems like any wage gain over and above the rate of inflation just isn’t fair. This is not a new argument and it is most easily applied to the public sector that has the stereotype of fat cattery stuck to it. Regardless whether it’s just me noticing it more, it turns out to be an odd one.

The basic problem is that this argument is out of line with the mainstream economic theory to which most of those making it ostensibly subscribe. That not-unfamiliar “go back to Econ 101” argument can be made here against those usually making it. In short, Under a whole array of conditions relating to the competitiveness of markets (perfectly so!) and the structure of production (very particular!), wages should be directly related to labour productivity.