Economics for One

Never Have So Few Supported So Many…

Another great analysis by USA Today popped up last week: the fraction of individual income earned from private business (as opposed to government wages and programs) sank to the lowest level in the history of the United States.  According to their analysis, just 41.9% of US personal income was derived from private wages and salaries in Q1–down from 44.6% in December 2007 and 47.6% in Q1, 2000.

At the same time, government wages and benefits have dramatically increased.

Why is this significant?  Because all government payments come from taxes, which are ultimately derived from productivity in the private sector.  So as the private sector shrinks relative to the public sector, the burden on the private sector increases, and the overall stability and sustainability of the system decreases.

Of course, individuals who receive paychecks from the government pay income taxes, just as private sector employees do. So to an individual it may appear as though the distinction of government or private pay in unimportant. But that is an illusion. At the end of the day, 100% of government-based pay has to come from somewhere, and the only place it can come from is taxes. The only method the government has to increase its payroll is to increase taxes.  (Even borrowing money just means increasing taxes later.)

By contrast, private company pay comes out of private earnings. A company can increase its earnings by becoming more efficient, producing more products, producing higher-margin products, expanding into new markets, etc.  And every dollar a private company generates creates more than a dollar of value in the economy.

Why is this?  Economics 101: someone was willing to voluntarily pay that dollar for some good or service.  That means, to that individual, the good or service was worth more than the dollar, and to the manufacturer of the good or service, the dollar was worth more than the manufacturing materials and effort.  So both sides benefited from the exchange.

By contrast, virtually nobody believes they are receiving more benefit for their taxes than what they pay.  If they did, they would voluntarily pay more taxes (to increase the benefit).  You may think taxpayers should value the benefits higher, but empirically they do not.  Hence, to the taxed individual, taxation is actually a destruction of value.  (Measuring the value created through the use of the taxed revenue is difficult, and reconciling any potential value creation to the government beneficiary against the destruction of value to the taxed individual has been proven to be impossible.)

So what does this all mean?

Private wages can effectively increase forever–limited only by the creativity and toil of people in the private sector.  But government wages can only increase as a function of increased taxes, which in turn depend upon those private wages.  So when private wages decrease, and public payments increase, the system can quickly become unstable.

Economist David Henderson of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University explains it nicely:

People are paid for being rather than for producing.

Which sounds great if you’re the one being paid.  But not so much if you’re the one doing the paying.

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