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Collective Choice: The Power of Public Policy


‘Abdu'l-Bahá asserts that “there is need of an equalization and apportionment by which all may possess the comforts and privileges of life is evident.” “The remedy,” He explains, “must be legislative readjustment of conditions.”


The power of public policy to shape societies cannot be understated. Indeed, the mechanism through which society expresses its values as regards to social order is public policy. Economies, however, unlike the natural universe, are not prone to description through a set of universal, immutable laws. They are social constructs. Who participates in them and what values these participants hold matter. This is made evident by three examples.


First, Figure 3 shows the same trends as in Figure 2 but disaggregated to two regions/countries: the United States and Western Europe. The trends are remarkable, as is the contrast between them. In Western Europe, those in the bottom 50 percent of the distribution have claimed, on average, 12 percentage points more of national income than those in the top 1 percent, a complete reversal of the global averages. What is more is that the trends have been relatively stable in the 35 years leading to 2016. In the United States, by contrast, the two series are trending at high rates and in the exact opposite direction. Whereas those in the top 1 percent have seen their share of national income increase from 10 to 20 percent from 1980 to 2016, those in the bottom 50 percent have seen theirs decline from 20 to 13 percent in the same time period. Given that Western Europe and the United States enjoy relatively similar levels of material prosperity, political stability, exposure to globalization, and technological advancement, the trends highlight the role that national policies, institutions, and voter preferences play in shaping the distribution of income.


Figure 3: Evolution of top and bottom income shares in Western Europe and the United States This figure plots the share of pre-tax national income claimed by adults (equal-split series where income is split equally between adults who belong to the same couple or household based on administrative records) in the top 1 percent national income distribution and those in the bottom 50 percent of the national distribution in the United States and in Western Europe. Pre-tax national income is the sum of all pre-tax personal income from labor and capital before taxes but after pension, unemployment insurance, and other social insurance schemes. Based on data from wid.world.

Second, Figure A.1 in the Appendix shows the evolution of the top 10 percent in a sample of six countries around the world between 1980 and 2016. As shown, there is a steady increase in all countries, though the increases occur at different rates. In India, for example, those in the top 10 percent of the income distribution claimed 24 percentage points more of national income in 2016 (55 percent) as compared to 1980 (31 percent). In the USA and Canada, by contrast, the rise for those in the top 10 percent over the same time period was 13 percentage points; in Europe, the increase was just 4.4 percentage points. The different rates at which top earners accumulate across different countries again underscores the importance of national policies and institutions in shaping the distribution of income. Rising inequality, in other words, is not just an inevitable outcome of impersonal market forces at work.


Finally, Figure 4 provides another example of the strong impact public policy plays in shaping economic outcomes. It plots the changes, in percentage points, in the share of pre-tax national income accruing to the top 1 percent against the change (in percentage points) in the top marginal tax rate between 1960 and 2009 in a sample of 18 OECD countries. As shown, the countries with the steepest declines in top marginal tax rates have also experienced the steepest increases in the share of national income accruing to the top 1 percent. What is more, there “is no statistically significant relationship between the decrease in top marginal tax rates and the rate of productivity growth in the developed countries since 1980.” In other words, lowering the tax rate of the wealthiest segments of society has had a strong, positive effect on their earnings without stimulating growth and productivity in the wider economy.


Figure 4. Top marginal tax rates and top income shares 2009-1960. This graph plots the differences in top marginal tax rates against changes in the income share accruing to the top 1 percent of earners in a sample of 18 OECD countries between 1960 and 2009. The red line indicates the line of best fit. Data from Facundo Alvaredo et al, “The Top 1 Percent in International and Historical Perspective,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 27, no.3 (2013):3-20. I thank Facundo Alvaredo for making a version of the data available for replication.

Like the other examples in this section, Figure 4 highlights how public policy can shape the economy to achieve a certain social outcome. Different policies will invariably lead to different outcomes. The hyper-concentration of wealth is thus a choice, not an inevitability. “There is no justification,” the House of Justice explains, “for continuing to perpetuate structures, rules, and systems that manifestly fail to serve the interests of all peoples. The teachings of the Faith leave no room for doubt: there is an inherent moral dimension to the generation, distribution, and utilization of wealth and resources.” Put simply, the moral dimension of the generation, distribution and utilization of material resources implies that policy be designed to serve the interests of all people. Finding novel ways to justify policies that serve the economic interests of the few at the expense of the many is a tendency of humanity’s collective childhood, not its coming of age.



Originally published from Baha'i World

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