The National Dividend
January 5, 2018 9:24 AM   Subscribe

While not the only way to combat the massive wealth inequality in the United States, there is a way that’s simple, proven to work, and can exist inside our current system: A social wealth fund, a pool of investment assets in some ways like the giant index or mutual funds already popular with retirement savings accounts or pension funds, but one owned collectively by society as a whole. Matt Breuing (The People’s Policy Project, previously), NYT Opinion.
posted by The Whelk (55 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
My knee-jerk reaction is visceral terror at how this piece glosses over how a fund would be run. I can't imagine how this would work well in the United States.

A giant pot of money that anyone who controls the government can invest in freely. Wall Street would lick its chops and profit, whether the American people win or lose. A potential backdoor to kill Social Security.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 9:56 AM on January 5, 2018 [28 favorites]


If people get a big chunk of money from this fund every year, wouldn't that encourage people to support policies that increase inequality? Would everyone suddenly have an opinion about the capital gains tax? If raising the minimum wage might decrease your dividend, would you still support it?
posted by Garm at 10:03 AM on January 5, 2018 [2 favorites]


My knee-jerk reaction is visceral terror at how this piece glosses over how a fund would be run. I can't imagine how this would work well in the United States.

A giant pot of money that anyone who controls the government can invest in freely. Wall Street would lick its chops and profit, whether the American people win or lose. A potential backdoor to kill Social Security.


I'd think you'd want it to be almost completely independent of who controls the government; like Federal Reserve independent. Very long terms of office, staffed with wonks, practically impossible for scumbag elected officials to get in and raid. Structure it so that it's self-funded (should be easy with money it would be producing) and Congress would lose power of purse as leverage.

I think public participation (via some combination of annual meetings and shareholder proxies) would also be essential.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:09 AM on January 5, 2018 [5 favorites]


My knee-jerk reaction is visceral terror at how this piece glosses over how a fund would be run.

If we just started it here I would nominate kliuless to run it. Where do I sign up?
posted by sexyrobot at 10:10 AM on January 5, 2018 [5 favorites]


Reminds me of the people who think gerrymandering can be "trivially fixed" with voronoi diagrams.
posted by aramaic at 10:10 AM on January 5, 2018 [6 favorites]


A "simple fix"? Not really. It's fine for Norway or Alaska where there is a giant surplus of natural resources income.
But for the US as a whole, which is running a giant deficit, the piece doesn't provide any good ideas for how to build assets. He suggests at the end only that the Fed can print money, buy securities, put them in the fund, which would not go over well. Universal Basic Income is going to be needed at some point down the road as robotized AI kills more and more jobs, but it needs better underpinnings than that.
posted by beagle at 10:11 AM on January 5, 2018 [5 favorites]


Such funds only really serve purpose when they're housing money that you'll never get again, usually from things like resource extraction. Utah has a similar fund setup to fund schools with fees from public lands (be they land sales or extraction leases). And not surprisingly, our schools are routinely funded near lowest per pupil levels in the nation. State leaders are so scared to take anything out of it as it would mean passing on future gains. So the fund is protected, grown, and shepherded like an egg that wasn't even tapped during the 2008 recession. So I guess this but on a national scale?
posted by msbutah at 10:12 AM on January 5, 2018 [6 favorites]


But for the US as a whole, which is running a giant deficit, the piece doesn't provide any good ideas for how to build assets.

One easy idea would be for the Post Office to open a bank. Other countries do it. Basic checking, savings, money market, and investment accounts available at every branch. It'd be a credit union with the reach of the federal government.

They could then use those deposited funds to invest. The difference in return after paying for itself would be invested in a sovereign wealth fund.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:15 AM on January 5, 2018 [20 favorites]


Another issue would be having a third of the wealth of your country in one fund (even if this is a diversified fund). That fund would make or break anything is decided to buy or sell.
posted by cjorgensen at 10:16 AM on January 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


Yglesias had a take on this a while back that touches on some of the problems with the sovereign wealth fund approach mentioned above. He sort of whistles past the political obstacles to his preferred alternative (raising taxes and spending the money), but I also think Bruenig whistles past the political obstacles to gaining traction for anything that looks even more like socialism.

These obstacles to both approaches have lessened in recent years, and 45's reign of error has provided an opportunity to think big and try to put forth alternatives that may have been thought of as pie-in-the-sky before, so I'm glad this conversation is happening. I just don't know that extending the sovereign wealth fund idea to an economy as large and diverse as the US makes a lot of sense. If you want socialism, then push for the political change to make socialism happen. Capitalism's tools will never dismantle capitalism's house.
posted by tonycpsu at 10:25 AM on January 5, 2018 [5 favorites]


Another issue would be having a third of the wealth of your country in one fund (even if this is a diversified fund). That fund would make or break anything is decided to buy or sell.

It's not like it'd just be a giant version of Vanguard. There's certainly be multiple funds run simultaneously with different objectives. There'd be a fixed income portfolio, an equity portfolio, etc. They'd also be engaging in venture and private equity investing, starting and/or buying whole companies.

Heck, it'd be a very clever way to effectively nationalize certain industries like banking, insurance, and health care. Just buy the big guys up with the sovereign wealth fund.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:27 AM on January 5, 2018 [8 favorites]


it's a nice thought no doubt! nice to see it exists in alaska and norway. i know that certain American Indian tribes have similar funds through casinos on their land which send dividends to any member of the tribe. but getting 330 million people to agree on anything is hard.

I personally tend to think the solution does not lie in money though, it lies in land/property ownership. some sort of tax break for rich people to sell their 2nd 3rd 4th homes to first time home buyers would be fantastic. and more LEHC(limited equity housing co-ops) for multi units... currently the laws really encourage people to buy more real estate every time they sell real estate, which has a very consolidating effect.
posted by danjo at 10:34 AM on January 5, 2018


It is phenomenal to watch the same people over and over demand we discuss these things a priori when we have actually existing examples to look at and evaluate.
posted by PMdixon at 10:36 AM on January 5, 2018 [5 favorites]


Capitalism's tools will never dismantle capitalism's house.

"The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House," is pithy, clever, and not historically correct. Just ask the Haitians. It's not a coincidence that the Haitian Revolution followed so soon after the French Revolution. Many of the leaders of the free people of color were educated in France.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:37 AM on January 5, 2018 [13 favorites]


Any government is already heavily invested in their own economy. If the economy is going well, tax revenues go up; if it's doing poorly tax revenues go down.

Norway, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore can invest internationally because their economies are only a tiny fraction of the world economy, so diversifying makes sense. The US economy is so huge that the US government already has pretty good exposure to profits in every industry.

We already have the investments, so it's just how the proceeds are distributed that we need to reconsider.
posted by miyabo at 10:48 AM on January 5, 2018 [14 favorites]


This stuff always sounds a bit like Social Credit to me: Social Credit Wiki
posted by sfred at 10:51 AM on January 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


One easy idea would be for the Post Office to open a bank.

I like this idea...it also gives them more to do (since most letters are just email now) and helps them maintain a more even staffing level to deal with the holidays. They could even operate smaller branches at libraries and keep more of them open in the internet age.
posted by sexyrobot at 10:55 AM on January 5, 2018 [2 favorites]


One easy idea would be for the Post Office to open a bank. Other countries do it. Basic checking, savings, money market, and investment accounts available at every branch. It'd be a credit union with the reach of the federal government.

I'd love to see this too combined with something like Germany's public bank system for infrastructure spending, they csn make a return but aren't beholden to making a maximum interest rate return so you coulfd have more projects for the sane money. (LA is pushing for this now)

These are all good first baby steps within a system so broken , do dominated by the rich, and so lagging behind other countries that even minor changes seem like impossible bloody red shouting.

Also nothing says we can't do this AND land reform and taxing the hell out of the megarich.
posted by The Whelk at 10:57 AM on January 5, 2018 [5 favorites]


> "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House," is pithy, clever, and not historically correct. Just ask the Haitians. It's not a coincidence that the Haitian Revolution followed so soon after the French Revolution. Many of the leaders of the free people of color were educated in France.

I'd rather not get into an extended derail here about a quote that wasn't meant to represent the totality of my argument, but there seems to be a big difference between, on the one hand, the education of revolutionaries that eventually led them to insurrection and political revolution by force, and on the other hand, using the power of the already-existing state to institute something that could take power away from that state by taking the financial resources away from the tax code (which the state controls) and into some sort of quasi-independent body that would control the fund, but not the financial resources that are invested in that fund. The education of revolutionaries was perhaps necessary, but certainly not sufficient -- they still had to fight.

My point was that, because the state would be managing the fund (Fed directors are nominally independent, but still appointed by the state, and the level of actual independence varies), this would still be an exercise in political change -- and would be subject to the same political impediments that have kept us from raising more revenue to spend on direct aid to those we'd wish to help with this fund. If we can marshal enough power to bring about that change, why add the Rube Goldberg machine of financial instruments (many of which are controlled by interests that wouldn't be receptive to increased power given to the people) when we can just raise more money and spend it directly?
posted by tonycpsu at 10:58 AM on January 5, 2018 [5 favorites]


It’s called a social wealth fund, a pool of investment assets in some ways like the giant index or mutual funds... that paid dividends... to everyone.

That's a fair description of the Canada Pension Plan but expanded to cover welfare and child support too. Given the success of the CPP to date, I'd say the plan has a very realistic chance of working. I'm hardly an economic expert, but there would seem to be precedent even when the sovereign fund isn't built on oil but social capital.
posted by bonehead at 11:09 AM on January 5, 2018 [7 favorites]


Hey you know what would fix wealth inequality? Give your nation's money to the finance industry!

Sincerely,
The Finance Industry
posted by FakeFreyja at 11:39 AM on January 5, 2018 [8 favorites]


I'm a fan of Bruenig's work but one thing I don't understand is how any of this would be sustainable. The wealth going into the financial system right now is suspiciously intertwined with speculation in the stock market and real estate. Real GDP is declining pretty much everywhere. The Limits to Growth people were probably right.

Redistributive capitalism is still exploitative, environmentally destructive, and globally unjust. The income sources are as awful as the wealth concentration. Don't hitch your collective wagon to a system that never proved itself able to care for humanity in the first place. The watershed is more valuable than the temporary dividend paid by poisoning it.

I guess what I'm asking is, what happens when "wealth", well … ends?
posted by overeducated_alligator at 11:51 AM on January 5, 2018 [5 favorites]


The government already runs a massive investment fund with $600 billion invested for the federal employee retirement system. They basically put all the money into index funds (managed by Black Rock). I’d think index funds would be the obvious choice to avoid conflict of interest concerns.
posted by Lame_username at 12:10 PM on January 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


Are index funds Marxist??
posted by chrchr at 12:16 PM on January 5, 2018 [4 favorites]


It's fine for Norway or Alaska where there is a giant surplus of natural resources income.

Is it really true that the collective natural resources of the United States *couldn't* have a value that (a) might provide part of a foundation for a such a fund (b) might let resources actually clear at market?

I mean, my guess is that what we're doing right now is setting lease prices for various rights either politically or via auction at rates that allow extractors a pretty good margin, because we're generally pretty anti-Georgist, and that means going towards Georgist would result in some people being upset their cash cow was being disrupted (in some cases almost literally, a la Bundy vs BLM), but I admittedly don't have a very high rez picture of how it works.
posted by wildblueyonder at 12:18 PM on January 5, 2018 [3 favorites]


Given the success of the CPP to date, I'd say the plan has a very realistic chance of working.

I vaguely remember this from before. Canada has workable insurance. Maybe not perfect, but we could have looked at the basics, and maybe tweeked it to make it better?

OH HELL NO!! No socialism here. We'll grow our own. And lo, see what we have made!

Repub reading: those people without bootstraps expect entitlement!
posted by BlueHorse at 12:22 PM on January 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


One of the roles of government is to provide counter-cyclical spending when the economy goes through some kind of adjustment or recession. Putting government money into the stock market and other investments would potentially reduce the amount available when a downturn inevitably occurs, which is the time when that money is needed the most.
posted by FJT at 12:25 PM on January 5, 2018 [4 favorites]


The Tax Code gives the US government a gross revenue share in EVERY business (thanks to the revenue-correlated share of payroll of up to 40%) and a 21% to 35% share of the profits, and the rest of the statutes and regulations gives the US government hefty control over those businesses too.
posted by MattD at 12:30 PM on January 5, 2018 [3 favorites]


A Simple Fix for Our Massive Inequality Problem

G U I L L O T I N E

posted by runt at 12:38 PM on January 5, 2018 [12 favorites]


"The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House," is pithy, clever, and not historically correct. Just ask the Haitians.

oh yes, I had forgotten how egalitarian Jean Jacques Dessalines was. his continuation of forced black labor on the island while upholding many other institutions of colonialism like the placing of the well-educated, light-skinned middle-class in positions of power was a truly radical shift in how power was distributed

if you're going to shit all over Audre Lorde, at least try to do it in good faith
posted by runt at 12:50 PM on January 5, 2018 [4 favorites]


Isn’t this just... socializing the means of production?
posted by nikodym at 1:01 PM on January 5, 2018 [2 favorites]


> leotrotsky:
"But for the US as a whole, which is running a giant deficit, the piece doesn't provide any good ideas for how to build assets.

One easy idea would be for the Post Office to open a bank. Other countries do it. Basic checking, savings, money market, and investment accounts available at every branch. It'd be a credit union with the reach of the federal government.

They could then use those deposited funds to invest. The difference in return after paying for itself would be invested in a sovereign wealth fund."


The USPS is privatized now.
posted by Samizdata at 1:05 PM on January 5, 2018


The Tax Code gives the US government a gross revenue share in EVERY business (thanks to the revenue-correlated share of payroll of up to 40%) and a 21% to 35% share of the profits

The problem with this is that the government only gets the reported revenue share and corporations use all sorts of schemes to reduce reported income using a very complicated deduction and credit system.

Economist Dean Baker has a proposal to make this revenue share even more explicit and at the same time eliminate the corporate income tax and all the income hiding that accompanies it. It also eliminates billions of dollars of wasted money on tax avoidance and compliance accounting services.

In exchange for eliminating the corporate income tax, make the government a non-voting shareholder of the corporation, say 20%. Then there would be no way for corporations to hide or shield their income from the government as a shareholder without also cheating their own shareholders.

Corporations exist to earn profits for shareholders. There are generally two methods for returning profits to shareholders -- dividends and stock buybacks. Every time a corporation pays dividends to shareholders they would likewise pay dividends to the government according to their ownership percentage. Every time a corporation buys back stock, it buys back shares from the government according to their ownership percentage. Either way, the government is guaranteed to get back their share of company profits when distributed to owners because the government is also one of those owners.

Since there would be no corporate income tax, corporations would have no reason to hide profits overseas. If they want shareholders to collect those profits, the government automatically gets its share too.

This eliminates all the gaming that corporations do to avoid income tax.
posted by JackFlash at 1:40 PM on January 5, 2018 [8 favorites]


JackFlash: Corporations exist to earn profits for shareholders. ... This eliminates all the gaming that corporations do to avoid income tax.

I doubt that it will eliminate all the gaming, though. The putative purpose of the corporation has been changed more than once over its lifetime; I'm sure that it can be changed again to make sure that powerful insiders continue to get the most rewards. The first idea that comes to mind: Influential shareholders get a seat on the board; compensation for board members goes way up; profits, sadly, remain low, because of the cost of attracting qualified board members. Sorry, government and individual investors. Maybe the stock market isn't for you?

I'm increasingly convinced that sentiment matters more than systems. Right now, a critical mass of Americans believes that money is better off in their hands than in the government's hands. As long as that remains the case, I suspect that ways to game the system will be found and enthusiastically embraced no matter what clever system we come up with. If that sentiment ever changes, taxes will flow in easily even without clever systems.
posted by clawsoon at 2:21 PM on January 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


If I understand this correctly, each citizen has an equal ownership share and receives dividends from the investment fund. So in practice, this pays equal money to each citizen where the payment pool fluctuates up and down based on the performance of markets. Returns are due to the fact that the state has partial ownership in a broad array of enterprises.

So, why all the intermediate financial mathematics? An equal effect would be if the state owned equity across the markets and made payments pegged to investment prices in the markets from the profit it extracted.

This would in effect be like Social Security without the Security and with payouts to all age groups. Where funds rely not on the taxation power of the state but on the residual equity ownership. The only "benefit" I can see is that it naturally adjusts for performance of the economy and would ease any inflationary distortions of social security, and also pays people younger than 65.
posted by hexaflexagon at 2:31 PM on January 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


I doubt that it will eliminate all the gaming, though [the Dean Baker proposal].

Corporate governance failures and management looting is a whole 'nother can of worms. But the Baker proposal does eliminate income tax gaming -- there would be no income tax. And if the government share is set appropriately, most corporations would embrace it as well because they waste billions of dollars on tax avoidance schemes, accountants, and lawyers, which would no longer be necessary.
posted by JackFlash at 2:38 PM on January 5, 2018


Baker's proposal to take 20% of dividends is economically identical to a flat 20% tax on dividends without tax exemption for charities, pensions, and retirement accounts.
posted by jpe at 2:47 PM on January 5, 2018


We already have a social wealth fund: the Social Security Trust Fund, now standing at $2.8 trillion. It makes a pathetic 3% interest because it's required by law to invest in only non-marketable US securities. Instead of making a new fund, we could simply let them invest it like a normal pension fund.

We don't because we have to pretend the payroll tax is and isn't a tax (Tax Freedom Day vs 47% pay no tax), and the Trust Fund is both real and fake. The suckers who work for a living get taxed at a higher rate than a billionaire on every dollar they make while also being freeloaders mooching off the system. The Trust Fund was real when Greenspan raised rates and cut benefits, but there will only be an overall deficit when it's time to use it.
posted by netowl at 2:51 PM on January 5, 2018 [2 favorites]


JackFlash: And if the government share is set appropriately, most corporations would embrace it as well because they waste billions of dollars on tax avoidance schemes, accountants, and lawyers, which would no longer be necessary.

My impression is that the decisions of corporations are dominated not by a unified corporate mind that puts the best interest of the corporation first, but by cooperation and competition between the people who make it up. Those accountants and lawyers are part of the corporation's mind, along with managers and executives and board members and shareholders. If the tax-avoidance employees can continue to find ways to game the new system in favour of executives, board members, and major shareholders, they will be kept on.
posted by clawsoon at 2:56 PM on January 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


How would a fund like this have done in 2008?
posted by TedW at 3:03 PM on January 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


Are index funds Marxist??

jesus fucking christ, just brain me with a tire iron already
posted by indubitable at 3:08 PM on January 5, 2018 [8 favorites]


Baker's proposal to take 20% of dividends is economically identical to a flat 20% tax on dividends without tax exemption for charities, pensions, and retirement accounts.

That's not a trivial exemption given that 70% of stock ownership is through such tax exempt organizations, including foreigners. And the dividend tax on stockholders is in addition to the corporate tax.

But corporations are already adept at avoiding dividend taxes for shareholders by using stock buybacks. The Baker proposal eliminates this loophole since the government profits from buybacks identically to dividends.
posted by JackFlash at 3:08 PM on January 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


Instead of making a new fund, we could simply let them invest it like a normal pension fund.
The biggest problem local jurisdictions in California have right now is the poor investment performance of their public employee pension funds coupled with their 'better than social security' benefit levels and early retirement options. It's becoming a BIG fiscal hole in relatively SMALL counties and cities.
posted by oneswellfoop at 3:17 PM on January 5, 2018


One easy idea would be for the Post Office to open a bank. Other countries do it.

A new bank's deposits have to come from somewhere right? That somewhere would be deposits in other banks, who are already using those deposits to lend the US money by buying US treasury bonds. If your post office bank instead decided to divert those investments to a social wealth fund that doesn't buy up government debt, you've just lowered the demand for govt debt, and interest rates would rise, and kinda squish the economy. It'd also be seen as massively unfair, considering how hard we've worked since 2008 to prevent private banks from doing exactly what you're proposing.

Sure, Japan's post office runs a bank. But it's also been privatized, and I'm not sure I want to emulate Japan's financial model until we understand how the hell it works -- they doubled the money supply and still have deflation.
posted by pwnguin at 3:51 PM on January 5, 2018 [2 favorites]


A social wealth fund, a pool of investment assets in some ways like the giant index or mutual funds already popular with retirement savings accounts or pension funds, but one owned collectively by society as a whole.

Huh. Sounds very like social security was viewed at its beginnings. Back when words like 'community' and 'people helping each other' and 'social' and 'wisdom' were, to most people, understood to be positive words. Before totalitarianists became alarmed at the trend. (Too late to stop much of Europe from going there.) Before it became clear that many 'pensions' existed as nothing but vague promises made of illusions ... like heaven.
posted by Twang at 4:42 PM on January 5, 2018


the Bruenigs are cool
posted by edeezy at 7:15 PM on January 5, 2018


National savings accounts for large nations are an accounting gimmick. An individual can save, which is a sort of voucher saying you can get future goods or work in return for some sacrifice today. A nation can't do that--it can't save a bunch then take a vacation. All it can do is move goods that are currently being produced between citizens. Calling the way you get stuff out of the economy a dividend instead of a tax doesn't change much. And calling this particular gimmick "proven" is like calling saying your favorite space project uses "existing" technology just because it didn't need imaginary physics.

It being a gimmick doesn't mean it's a bad idea. A different sort of taxation does change the politics. And I'd be happy to support it if this was the magic trick that got people behind it. There are some points in favor of the framing but I really doubt it would be immune from the same sort of pettiness every other wealth transfer program gets. Some people would complain about semi-employed Bob getting as many shares as someone who makes valuable contributions, other people would complain about Jack getting "government handouts" when he's already rich.

Also I'm on the side that's pretty skeptical about the political effects of this fiction--specifically pretending we're sharing wealth not as a democratic expression of values to help the needy but as a sort of technocratic administrative operation where members of the manager class figure how much people "deserve." (Not, I admit, that I'm crazy about the successes of democracies in the last half-century when it comes to this.)
posted by mark k at 7:36 PM on January 5, 2018 [2 favorites]


70% of stock ownership is through such tax exempt organizations, including foreigners.

Foreigners are subject to tax on dividends from US companies. In fact, that works pretty much the way ownership would: it's a flat tax with source withholding. The only difference is that tax treaties may drop that tax rate to 15% or so.

It would be politically difficult to eliminate the exemption for charities and pensions, but that hardly seems like an appropriate argument in favor of the government seizing 20% of the equity in US companies, which is much, much less politically feasible (and would violate the 5th amendment, to boot).

A buyback is an in-kind dividend; since the US's constructive 15% - 23.8% ownership (via the tax rate on dividends) doesn't get diluted by buybacks, we already get the economic equivalent of the buyback through the tax code.
posted by jpe at 6:10 AM on January 6, 2018


to echo others, the point is ownership and control (over the means of production), but if the state, regulators or parties are captured by private/corporate interests -- to the public's detriment -- then the more pressing problem is democratic rot, intentional or otherwise. BUT, that isn't to say (more) public-interest institutional ownership doesn't help; it may work to reverse democratic rot!

"activist" investors' job is to push for board representation and have a say in how companies are run. there is no reason they can't be workers and unions, et al, or "stakeholders" (aka people ;) who'd like environmental-social governance (ESG) concerns covered above and beyond the bottom line because that is what makes good business -- or business good -- in their view.
posted by kliuless at 6:45 AM on January 6, 2018 [1 favorite]


I keep thinking about Rosie M Bank’s Social Capital WPA and how something like this could be a tool to fund it and keep it away from speculation and profit driven madness and deal with the Problem Of Capital Income. Finding ways to take all that passively generating money out of private hands and into public funds should be one of our (many) goals.

Yeah calling it a fund and not a tax is a bit of dodge, and yes it wouldn’t mater so much if we actually enforced our tax laws (in my administrations we’d have the biggest refunding and staffing of the IRS with a focus on high level white collar crime evah) but calling it a national investment makes it easier to hear - say the first program set up funds directly into universal, everyone gets it regardless of need childcare programs, National pre-K and baby boxes and such. You can’t be against an investment in the nation’s children can you?
posted by The Whelk at 7:31 AM on January 6, 2018 [1 favorite]


A buyback is an in-kind dividend; since the US's constructive 15% - 23.8% ownership (via the tax rate on dividends) doesn't get diluted by buybacks, we already get the economic equivalent of the buyback through the tax code.

The entire point of stock buybacks is to avoid taxation of dividends. It is a giant loophole employed to the advantage of high income taxable stockholders. That is why taxation of stock buybacks is necessary.

that hardly seems like an appropriate argument in favor of the government seizing 20% of the equity in US companies, which is much, much less politically feasible (and would violate the 5th amendment, to boot).

You wouldn't necessarily have to seize equity. Corporations could voluntarily turn it over in exchange for elimination of the income tax. Corporations waste billions on tax avoidance schemes, accountants and tax lawyers that they could eliminate.

But share ownership is just an accounting mechanism since government shares would be non-voting. The government wouldn't control the property. It would just be taxing it. You could accomplish the same thing by just levying a source tax on all dividends and share buybacks. When you talk about seizing property and the 5th amendment you sound like the anti-tax nuts who have been making that same argument about income taxes for over a century.
posted by JackFlash at 7:40 AM on January 6, 2018 [1 favorite]


You could accomplish the same thing by just levying a source tax on all dividends....

Which was exactly my point: Baker proposes an overly-complicated, politically impossible way to replicate taxing dividends, which we already do in large part. The notion that we could replace the corporate tax by tweaking the tax code to subject pensions and charities to taxes on dividends is pretty far-fetched.

re: buybacks: Baker's inane proposal wouldn't raise revenue from buybacks. The benefit to a shareholder from a buyback is that she has a larger portion of the equity: ie, she gets a larger dividend in the future. Since the government will also get a larger portion by dint of the tax on dividends, the government already gets the benefit of the buyback.

If you want to tax buybacks, you could only do so with a change to the tax code; Baker's nonsensical idea wouldn't accomplish it.
posted by jpe at 8:11 AM on January 6, 2018


A stock buyback scheme is deliberately employed as a tax deferral mechanism. According to Modigliani- Miller a stock buyback is a mechanism for converting dividends into capital gains. The capital gains are not taxed until the stock is sold. A tax deferral has great value to a stock holder. It is the equivalent of an unlimited IRA.

And note that foreigners do not pay capital gains taxes so a stock buyback is a mechanism for avoiding all taxation.

If you want to tax buybacks, you could only do so with a change to the tax code; Baker's nonsensical idea wouldn't accomplish it.

That's the point of stock ownership. As a stock owner you effectively collect a tax on buybacks by selling the equivalent portion of your shares. For example, if a company wants to buyback 1% of their shares, they also buy back 1% of the government's shares. The buyback is financially identical to a dividend and when you sell the shares, identical to taxing dividends.
posted by JackFlash at 8:55 AM on January 6, 2018 [1 favorite]


re: Rosie M Bank’s Social Capital WPA - "we could greatly reduce poverty and suffering; we lack the societal will, not the ability."

Sarah Silverman’s response to a sexist tweet is a much-needed ray of hope
posted by kliuless at 11:56 PM on January 6, 2018


BlackRock and Vanguard Are Less Than a Decade Away From Managing $20 Trillion - "Both firms were among the first to join the Investor Stewardship Group, a group of institutional asset managers seeking to foster better corporate governance, according to the organization’s website. Vanguard has doubled its team dedicated to this over the last two years and supported two climate-related shareholder resolutions for the first time." [The world's least scary duopoly]

Rapid changes in the climate for carbon-heavy investments
ExxonMobil, the world’s biggest listed oil and gas group, has bowed to investor demands for increased disclosure on climate risks to its business. This followed a 62 per cent vote against the board at May’s annual meeting on a shareholder proposal calling for a yearly assessment of the long term portfolio impact of climate change policies.

This week the company declared that it intended to spell out how it would be affected by the 2015 Paris agreement, in which nearly 200 countries committed themselves to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. It also promised to explain its positioning for a lower carbon future. Since ExxonMobil fought tooth and nail against similar proposals in earlier years, its climbdown was quite something.

Separately, 225 global institutional investors controlling assets worth $26.3tn last week launched an initiative to put pressure on 100 of the world’s more carbon intensive companies to step up their actions on climate change. Climate Action 100+, as it is known, is the biggest shareholder action plan ever launched. The aim, says Anne Simpson, investment director for sustainability at Calpers, the closely involved Californian government employees’ pension fund, is to “put the power of money on the biggest corporate greenhouse gas emitters and hold their boards to account”. To meet the Paris commitments they will have to cut emissions by 80 per cent.

The background is growing interest in sustainable investing and the environmental, social and governance agenda. Institutional investors increasingly regard these so-called ESG issues as part of long term risk management and of their fiduciary duty to beneficiaries.

Many now recognise that climate change poses financial risks to companies, investors and to the financial system as a whole, while the transition to a low carbon world will throw up big investment opportunities. Many of the large institutions, meanwhile, are mapping out their carbon footprint across every company in the portfolio as they move towards lower carbon investing.

Why have institutional investors become so active now, especially those such as BlackRock and Vanguard that had supported the ExxonMobil board over previous climate change resolutions? On many big governance issues, such as curbing excessive boardroom pay, constraining over-dominant chief executives or policing conflicts of interest, the institutions are serial underperformers. Part of the answer is that transparent voting puts pressure on fund managers. The likes of BlackRock point out that they have engaged with ExxonMobil for years and that their patience simply ran out. Their competitors suspect that they were feeling exposed and worried about losing current clients when ESG issues have become mainstream investor concerns.
Socially Responsible Investing Isn't Just for Cranks
There's a frustrating terminological imprecision in the phrases "shareholder activist" and "activist shareholder." There are two quite separate kinds of activist:
  1. One kind wants companies to make more money by being meaner: They call for efficiencies, stock buybacks, mergers, less spending on perks, etc. This stuff is often stereotyped as enriching shareholders at the expense of workers and other stakeholders, and as harming long-term value by focusing on short-term stock-price results.
  2. The other kind wants companies to make less money but be nicer: They call for more social responsibility or environmental studies or other things that might reduce returns on investment (at least in the short term) but achieve broader social goals.
[...]

But that is changing as enormous pension funds have become more interested in environmental and social issues. There is an opening for type-2 activism as a business, for activist funds focused not on economic efficiency but on long-term environmental and social stewardship... Jana's first project in this vein is to join with the California State Teachers' Retirement System to badger Apple Inc. "to develop new software tools that would help parents control and limit phone use more easily and to study the impact of overuse on mental health."

...there aren't too many social-responsibility activists with actual activism skills, so it makes sense for Jana to step in to meet the demand... Calstrs and other big influential public pension funds tend to be fond of type-2 social-and-environmental activism without necessarily having much love for type-1 breakups-and-buybacks activists. This fund could bridge the gap: If you work closely with people like Calstrs to keep iPhones out of the hands of children, they might be more inclined to vote with you on your next proxy fight demanding that a company break itself up.
posted by kliuless at 10:23 PM on January 9, 2018


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