Contemporary Western societies are often criticized for being excessively individualistic. One interpretation of this claim is that their citizens mainly care about their own well-being and not so much about that of others or about communal bonds. Another, complementary interpretation that I develop here argues that our ideas in economics and about justice overestimate the contributions individuals make to economic production. Recognising the extent to which our productivity and thus our standard of living depends on the cooperation of others has a humbling effect on what income we can legitimately think we are entitled to.
Author: Peter Dietsch
Peter Dietsch is a philosopher and economist, and professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. His research focuses on issues of economic ethics, notably on tax justice, normative dimensions of monetary policy, and on income inequalities. Dietsch is the author of Catching Capital – The Ethics of Tax Competition (Oxford University Press, 2015), co-author of Do Central Banks Serve the People? (Polity Press, 2018), and co-editor of Global Tax Governance – What is Wrong with It and How to Fix It (ECPR Press, 2016). He has published numerous articles and book chapters, and is a regular contributor in the media on debates in his field. In 2017, Dietsch was nominated to the College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists of the Royal Society of Canada. Dietsch has held visiting positions at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin (on a Humboldt fellowship), at the European University Institute in Florence, and at the University of Victoria, British Columbia.
It is difficult to read anything on the justification of high salaries these days without running into catch phrases such as “the hunt for talent”, “attracting the best people to this job”, or “retaining human capital.” The core idea underlying this kind of discourse is one that has got a lot of traction in political philosophy in recent decades, too: It is justified to pay certain individuals – be they neurosurgeons, lawyers, or CEOs – financial incentives, because the productive contribution they will make in response benefits us all.
The latest report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that hundreds of billions of dollars will be required for climate mitigation and adaptation investments per year to avoid catastrophic global warming. Yet, some of our financial practices are not only slow to adapt to this requirement, but actually represent an obstacle in achieving the goal.
John Kenneth Galbraith, in his classic The Affluent Society (1952) formulated a powerful argument he called the “dependence effect.” In a nutshell, the idea is that capitalist societies create wants in individuals in order to then satisfy them. Perhaps the central tool in this process is advertising. Galbraith suggested that the additional wants generated through advertising might not even lead to additional welfare. People’s level of preference satisfaction before being exposed to advertising can be just as high as after the exposure. Viewed from his angle, advertising is wasteful from a societal perspective, because the costs involved do not generate any tangible benefits. The reason firms engage in it is solely to secure more market share than their competitors.
On October 8th, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) announced that 136 countries have adopted its two-pillar proposal to reform the taxation of multinational enterprises (MNEs).
Pillar One applies to MNEs with sales in excess of $20bn and profits over 10%. It shifts the taxing rights of the next 25% of profits above the 10% threshold to market jurisdictions, that is, to the country where the goods and services of the MNE in question are sold. The measure is thought to apply only to about 100 MNEs, many of them in the highly profitable digital services sector. Pillar Two introduces a minimum tax of 15% for all MNEs with revenues of more than $750m.
Since the financial crisis of 2007, central banks have become the central tool of macroeconomic management, being described as the “only game in town.” To avert financial meltdown and, subsequently, to stimulate the economy, they have launched unconventional monetary policies such as quantitative easing (QE). The latter injects huge amounts of liquidity into the economy through large-scale purchases of financial assets by central banks. Central banks have doubled down on QE in reaction to the Covid-crisis.
QE has unintended side-effects. By pushing up the prices of the financial assets purchased, it favours already well-to-do asset holders. Given these consequences, central banks found themselves in the spotlight and pressured to justify their policies.
In recent decades, Western democracies have seen a trend towards the use of independent agencies (IAs) to insulate certain policy issues from direct political influence. Of course, such delegations can be revoked, but they do put the decisions in question at arm’s length from elected representatives for the time being.
Given the emphasis on the accountability of elected representatives in a democracy, how can one justify such instances of delegation? Advocates of IAs claim that they will do a better job at attaining the policy objectives in question. In particular, this will be the case in policy areas where governments face commitments problems that will prevent them from adopting optimal policies.
Let’s make the post-pandemic world socially and environmentally more sustainable – a better place.
This sentiment is common these days among both politicians and academics. At the same time, many crisis management decisions by governments, central banks, and other public institutions make an appeal to the idea that “there is no alternative” (TINA) when it comes to the policies we use in the immediate term to prop up the economic and financial system.
The disconnect between the laudable long-term intentions for change and what are perceived as short-term constraints is not just disconcerting, it is also potentially harmful. It ignores important lessons from recent crises, notably the 2008 financial crisis: short-term crisis management decisions can have significant, sometimes unintended, side-effects that undermine fundamental social policy goals.
In some situations, society permits individual citizens to not fulfil otherwise binding requirements when the latter conflict with the individual’s deeply held ethical convictions. The classic example are pacifists who obtain an exemption from military service. I submit that an argument along these lines also applies to collective pension plans. Such plans need to offer their participants a minimal level of influence over their portfolios to be legitimate.
Our recent book Do Central Banks Serve the People? sheds a critical light on the actions of central banks in the wake of the 2007 financial crisis. Using the US Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, and the Bank of England as examples, we show how they have stretched their mandate beyond their traditional tasks of price stability and financial stability. This short introduction to the book summarizes the argument that the expanded role of central banks has three serious drawbacks.