on serfs, stocks, and inequality

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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25 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:


    Great post. Since I guess I’m the “vector guy”, I’d ask whether we have a bigger ratio of serfs:nobles today than we did in the past or fewer.

    My First Job(tm) was for a little cafe/bakery. If I was a serf (sure, why not?) and my bosses were minor nobles, was this a step up from a situation where, X years earlier, all of us would have been serfs? It seems that way to me. (My bosses met at Epcot… where they both worked in the French Pavilion. Serfs.)Report

  2. ChrisWWW says:

    “Certainly redistribution through higher taxes on the rich can increase income equality, but whether it will also increase overall prosperity is another question altogether.”

    Yglesias wrote some intriguing posts on this subject a few months ago. In the first, he notes the statistical relationship between national measures of happiness and high taxation, and theorizes that greater income equality leads to happier people. Which makes sense logically. With a lot of income inequality, there are more people anxious and jealous of their neighbors, and if you’re rich you’re worried about falling into the lower rungs of society. It leads to an overall lack of trust between people and the idea we’re working toward a common prosperity.

    Second, he writes about the declining marginal utility of money. Once someone is making over — for sake of argument — $500k a year, they can pretty much buy anything they need or desire. Fancy cars, large homes, extravagant vacations. All that’s left is for them to buy more of such things. So what’s better for society, that we keep tax rates low and let Mr. $500k buy a second car, or fund public transportation so a poor guy can get to work?Report

    • North in reply to ChrisWWW says:

      “So what’s better for society, that we keep tax rates low and let Mr. $500k buy a second car, or fund public transportation so a poor guy can get to work?”
      I think that’s an awkward way of looking at it Chris because firstly who are we to put an upper cap on what people should be earning and more importantly, how efficient will we be at measuring it? (answer: not good) Instead lets agree that public transportation is a social good and use progressive taxation to fund it (along with a moderate user fee to build in some efficiency and prevent abuse). If the rich end up not being taxed down to the same level as the rest of us so much the better. If we take it all you know we’ll find ways of spending it and in most cases they won’t be good ways.Report

      • E.D. Kain in reply to North says:

        Beyond that, we seem to always forget that the economic impact of rich people buying lots of things they don’t need is in and of itself a sort of redistribution of wealth, creating demand and therefore jobs which are usually better than government services at meaningfully benefiting peoples’ lives.Report

        • ChrisWWW in reply to E.D. Kain says:

          I agree, and I’m not arguing for total income equality through redistributive taxation. People should of course get to keep a lot of the money they make. Our system would fall apart without the opportunity to make more.

          Instead, the argument is that a more progressive tax code with subsequent redistribution is an effective means to a more just and happy society. Just, because keeping a poor man from starving is worth one less BMW in a rich man’s garage.Report

        • ChrisWWW in reply to E.D. Kain says:

          As I said to North, the goal isn’t income equality, just moving closer to equality than we are now is enough. Rich folk will still have plenty of money to buy useless junk, just a little bit less.

          But more importantly, I don’t think anyone is arguing that we’ll ever reach 100% stable employment. And unless we can do that, we’ll need a safety net. Sure you may have a job today making a BMW for our rich friend, but tomorrow we might invent a robot that takes your place. It’s not certain when or if you’ll find another job. Until then, should society just let you starve?Report

    • cole porter in reply to ChrisWWW says:

      So what’s better for society, that we keep tax rates low and let Mr. $500k buy a second car, or fund public transportation so a poor guy can get to work?

      Do you at least think that this is a serious question? You probably think that it’s better for society if Mr. 30Ks taxes remain low. Isn’t it conceivable that the it’s also better (for everyone! even counting the hit public transit takes) if Mr. 500Ks taxes remain low? Not just because Mr. 500K gets to keep more of his money, but because Mr. 30K and Mr. 365 and everyone else are better off. This is the claim at the heart of the humane case for low taxes, free markets, and all of that.Report

  3. Dan Miller says:

    Whoah there–neo-Stalinism? I guess I missed a post, but that seems like an awfully heavy assertion to be making without a link or an explanation. Unless I’m missing something?Report

  4. Jim says:

    “When we start talking about too-big-to-fail banking institutions who are at once resuscitated with billions of taxpayer dollars…”

    Then we are talking about public utilities, not capitalist entities.Report

  5. Bruce Smith says:

    Could it possibly be the way a society permits the use of capital that determines the economic justice?Report

  6. Ian M. says:

    Or in other words, you don’t have an academic background in economics.Report

    • E.D. Kain in reply to Ian M. says:

      Are you referring to me? (Cause, no, I don’t have an academic background in economics. Do you?)Report

    • Ian M. in reply to Ian M. says:

      Sorry, that was bitchy. You haven’t established what is wrong with Social Security, why it needs to be changed or why it should be transformed into a retirement plan. Let me do it for you: Social Security is how our government controls poor people. That is the key function. My thought on this issue was shaped primarily by “Regulating the Poor” by Piven & Cloward. This is a pretty damning critique and of interest to both sides of the political spectrum. Conservatives have to address the issue of how the vast majority of poor people in America will be prevented from taking direct action without entitlements. Well, how?Report

      • E.D. Kain in reply to Ian M. says:

        Yeah that was bitchy but I can handle bitchy.

        Interesting question, too. Actually there would be an entitlement – or a benefit – vis-a-vis personal retirement accounts with safety nets. The safety nets are important still. (Read Wilkinson’s paper I link to above for a more thorough explanation).

        How will the vast majority of poor people in America be prevented from taking direct action? Well – hopefully with real savings they will be less disenfranchised and less likely to take whatever sort of dangerous populist action you hint at. Also, with better health care safety nets, I imagine there will be less chance of bloody revolt. Add to this the fact that poverty in America is not really all that bad – comparatively – and I don’t think you’re likely to see any real uprising from the lower classes. I’m not arguing against safety nets, I’m arguing against massive entitlements. And Social Security – while nowhere near as insolvent as Medicare – is nevertheless a fairly ineffectual retirement program. Doesn’t it make more sense to help people save rather than just give them enough to be able to control them, as you put it?Report