Henderson on Deaton
By David Henderson
Hoover has published my longer piece on Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton. It’s titled “A Nobel for Humanity.” It’s not my title, but I like it better than the one I gave it, just as I liked the Wall Street Journal’s title better than the one I gave it.
I cover ground that I didn’t have space for in the Wall Street Journal piece, as well as what I did cover in the WSJ piece, stated a little differently to avoid copyright violation.
In this longer piece, I’m both more congratulatory of Deacon and more critical.
The same chart shows another devastating effect–that of Chairman Mao’s manmade famine. In 1958, life expectancy in China was nearly 50; by 1960, Mao, with his ruthless collectivist policies, had chopped it to less than 30! Five years later, “once Mao had stopped killing people,” it had risen to nearly 55. I highlight this for two reasons: (1) to point out what a moral monster Mao was, and (2) to credit Angus Deaton for not mincing words about Mao. You might think that this latter takes no courage. But I assure you, having been in academia a while, that although Mao’s slaughter is well-documented, it’s not common for academics, even ones who know the facts about Mao, to point out that he was a mass murderer. I recommend also that you watch this short interview of Deaton done by the Financial Times two years ago, and watch how, after Deaton calmly calls Mao out for his killing, the interviewer quickly changes topics. (It happens around the 3:10 mark.)
Government-to-government foreign aid does nothing to help these things happen and, indeed, almost certainly makes governance in those countries worse. I certainly don’t blame, though, and, indeed, I applaud, people who use their own money to help poor people in Africa and Asia. But here’s what I find striking. Some serious economists have computed that relaxing immigration restrictions would create large gains for people in the receiving countries and, more important in this context, even larger gains for immigrants. You don’t have to be an “open borders” advocate to realize that increasing immigration, with residency requirements for receiving welfare and getting to vote, would make a big dent in world poverty.
Economists have been on average much more positively disposed to immigration than the average American. Yet Deaton says nothing about loosening immigration restrictions as an effective means to reduce world poverty. Moreover, a search on his semi-annual Letters from America, in which he has commented on American public policy since 1996, yields exactly zero references to immigration.
Deaton worries, much more than I do, about the increasing wealth inequality in the United States. He writes “To worry about these consequences of extreme inequality has nothing to do with being envious of the rich and everything to with the fear that rapidly growing top incomes are a threat to the wellbeing of everyone else.” What are these consequences?
He writes: “The very wealthy have little need for state-provided education or health care; they have every reason to support cuts in Medicare and to fight any increases in taxes. They have even less reason to support health insurance for everyone, or to worry about the low quality of public schools that plagues much of the country. They will oppose any regulation of banks that restricts profits, even if it helps those who cannot cover their mortgages or protects the public against predatory lending, deceptive advertising, or even a repetition of the financial crisis.
Interestingly, though, Deaton gives no evidence that these are the concerns of the rich. I bet he would be surprised to know that according to exit polling data from 2006, 47 percent of those earning $100,000 or more voted Democrat and 52 percent voted Republican. That’s not a large margin. What about the superrich? For every Charles Koch, there’s a George Soros. Moreover, it’s hard to see how raising marginal tax rates to, say, 60%, or imposing a wealth tax of, say, one percent annually would do much to change the voting patterns of “the rich.” The reality is that polling data show that high-income and wealthy people, like most voters, don’t generally vote their pocketbook. Instead, they vote their beliefs.
Deaton may think he has evidence. He writes: “Studies of congressional voting by the political scientists Larry Bartels and Martin Gilens have documented how votes in Congress from both sides of the aisle are sensitive to the wishes of rich constituents and not at all to the wishes of poor constituents.”
But it doesn’t follow that members of Congress cater to the narrow economic interests of the rich. To take one example, higher-income people tend to be more pro-free trade than lower-income people and Congressional votes reflect this preference. But in percentage terms, the biggest beneficiaries of the cheaper clothing, food, and fuel made possibly by free trade are the relatively low-income people.