A Modest Proposal in Switzerland: Breathe, and Get Paid

One of the wealthiest countries in the world, Switzerland, is considering a proposal that will entitle every single citizen of the country a guaranteed monthly income on which to live (“payment for being alive”):

The proposal is, in part, the brainchild of a German-born artist named Enno Schmidt, a leader in the basic-income movement. He knows it sounds a bit crazy. He thought the same when someone first described the policy to him, too. “I tell people not to think about it for others, but think about it for themselves,” Schmidt told me. “What would you do if you had that income? What if you were taking care of a child or an elderly person?” Schmidt said that the basic income would provide some dignity and security to the poor, especially Europe’s underemployed and unemployed. It would also, he said, help unleash creativity and entrepreneurialism: Switzerland’s workers would feel empowered to work the way they wanted to, rather than the way they had to just to get by. He even went so far as to compare it to a civil rights movement, like women’s suffrage or ending slavery. 

The reporter for The New York Times, Annie Lowrey, is bullish on this idea working in the United States:

If our economy is no longer able to improve the lives of the working poor and low-income families, why not tweak our policies to do what we’re already doing, but better — more harmoniously? It’s hardly uplifting news, but minimum incomes just might be stimmig for the United States too. 

What do you think?

Atlanta is the Worst Metropolitan City in America for Upward Mobility

A troubling new report summarizes the trends for upward mobility in the United States, and is summarized in The New York Times. Atlanta is the largest metropolitan city with the worst upward mobility, both for the black and white population in the city:

The study — based on millions of anonymous earnings records and being released this week by a team of top academic economists — is the first with enough data to compare upward mobility across metropolitan areas. These comparisons provide some of the most powerful evidence so far about the factors that seem to drive people’s chances of rising beyond the station of their birth, including education, family structure and the economic layout of metropolitan areas.

Climbing the income ladder occurs less often in the Southeast and industrial Midwest, the data shows, with the odds notably low in Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis, Raleigh, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Columbus. By contrast, some of the highest rates occur in the Northeast, Great Plains and West, including in New York, Boston, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Seattle and large swaths of California and Minnesota.

Income mobility was also higher in areas with more two-parent households, better elementary schools and high schools, and more civic engagement, including membership in religious and community groups.

Regions with larger black populations had lower upward-mobility rates. But the researchers’ analysis suggested that this was not primarily because of their race. Both white and black residents of Atlanta have low upward mobility, for instance.

The authors emphasize that their data allowed them to identify only correlation, not causation. Other economists said that future studies will be important for sorting through the patterns in this new data.

Still, earlier studies have already found that education and family structure have a large effect on the chances that children escape poverty. Other researchers, including the political scientist Robert D. Putnam, author of “Bowling Alone,” have previously argued that social connections play an important role in a community’s success. Income mobility has become one of the hottest topics in economics, as both liberals and conservatives have grown worried about diminished opportunities following more than a decade of disappointing economic growth. After years of focusing more on inequality at a moment in time, economists have more recently turned their attention to people’s paths over their lifetimes.

A child who grows up in a family making $50,000 annually (42nd percentile ) is likely to end up, on average, in the 43rd percentile of income at working age of 30. Click through the article and play with the data set in the middle of the article to see how your city compares.

Warren Buffett on a Minimum Tax

Warren Buffett is in the news again, this time stirring up some controversy with his op-ed in The New York Times, where he argues the ultra-rich need to pay a minimum tax:

Additionally, we need Congress, right now, to enact a minimum tax on high incomes. I would suggest 30 percent of taxable income between $1 million and $10 million, and 35 percent on amounts above that. A plain and simple rule like that will block the efforts of lobbyists, lawyers and contribution-hungry legislators to keep the ultrarich paying rates well below those incurred by people with income just a tiny fraction of ours. Only a minimum tax on very high incomes will prevent the stated tax rate from being eviscerated by these warriors for the wealthy.

Above all, we should not postpone these changes in the name of “reforming” the tax code. True, changes are badly needed. We need to get rid of arrangements like “carried interest” that enable income from labor to be magically converted into capital gains. And it’s sickening that a Cayman Islands mail drop can be central to tax maneuvering by wealthy individuals and corporations.

He cites some hard numbers:

A huge tail wind from tax cuts has pushed us along. In 1992, the tax paid by the 400 highest incomes in the United States (a different universe from the Forbes list) averaged 26.4 percent of adjusted gross income. In 2009, the most recent year reported, the rate was 19.9 percent. It’s nice to have friends in high places.

The group’s average income in 2009 was $202 million — which works out to a “wage” of $97,000 per hour, based on a 40-hour workweek. (I’m assuming they’re paid during lunch hours.) Yet more than a quarter of these ultrawealthy paid less than 15 percent of their take in combined federal income and payroll taxes. Half of this crew paid less than 20 percent. And — brace yourself — a few actually paid nothing.

For the rest of you: how to reduce your taxes in 2012.