Bill Koch's Wild West village tells us all we need to know about taxing the rich

It's a simple question: would you prefer lasers or a Wild West gated community?

The Denver Post brings us the news that Bill Koch – one of the Koch brothers, the right-wing billionaires who are trying to buy the American political system as though it were just another corporate acquisition – is recreating a 50-building old West town on his estate.

Nancy Loftholm reports:

There's a new town in Colorado. It has about 50 buildings, including a saloon, a church, a jail, a firehouse, a livery and a train station. Soon, it will have a mansion on a hill so the town's founder can look down on his creation.

But don't expect to move here — or even to visit.

This town is billionaire Bill Koch's fascination with the Old West rendered in bricks and mortar. It sits on a 420-acre meadow on his Bear Ranch below the Raggeds Wilderness Area in Gunnison County. It's an unpopulated, faux Western town that might boggle the mind of anyone who ever had a playhouse. Its full-size buildings come with polished brass and carved-mahogany details and are fronted with board sidewalks and underpinned by a water-treatment system. A locked gate with guards screens who comes and goes.

As Matt Yglesias points out, this is pretty close to the best demonstration of the declining marginal utility of wealth there could be. He writes:

As people get richer and richer, it gets harder and harder to think of cost-effective ways of spending the marginal dollar on amusing yourself. When you take from the rich and give to the poor, you end up generating a lot of extra welfare as people who don't have very much can have their lives greatly improved at relatively low cost.

Money is literally more useful in the hands of the poor than in the hands of billionaires. If someone is struggling to afford enough food to survive, you can vastly improve the quality of their life by giving them enough money to buy a loaf of bread. But while it's possible to imagine that life gets noticeably better when you trade your first class plane tickets for a private jet, the amount of money it requires to get that improvement could make an equivalent difference in the lives of many more people who can't afford air travel.

This is basically the justification for progressive taxation. At a certain – relatively low – level, the discrepancy in marginal utility of income is high enough that it is prima facie just to redistribute. If a marginal pound can do 100 times as much good in the pockets of someone on the minimum wage than in the pockets of someone on £1m a year, then there needs to be a very good reason why it shouldn't be transferred from one to the other.

Thankfully for the millionaires, there is: incentives. The amount of wealth in the world at this very moment isn't the only important thing to take into account; the other is where extra wealth is going to come from.

The facile claim that lies at the heart of the Laffer curve is that, if marginal tax rates are 100 per cent, people won't bother working. So if we try to apply our naïve redistributionism to the real world, we would end up taking most of the wealth of the developed world and sending it overseas, which would most likely end up in the global economy shutting down; not the best outcome for anyone.

If we just ended there, the analysis would be little deeper than the most thought-free attacks on socialism.

But in fact, there is more to say, thanks, again, to the Koch brothers. Just as they demonstrate the existence of declining marginal utility of wealth, they also demonstrate the existence of motivations for work beyond mere wages.

The Kochs don't work for money: they work for influence. Money is a useful means to that end, and it can also enable them to build crazy villages on their estates. But anyone looking at their actions can infer what they really want.

Similarly, do you think Richard Branson would stop Bransoning around (it's a verb now, look it up) if he made less money doing so? Or is he interested in fame, adventures and prestige projects as much as he is in earning his salary?

This is the reasoning behind the French finance minister's announcement two months ago of a potential salary cap for the country's state-owned companies, which include EDF, Areva and SNCF.

Certainly, no one questions the advantage of a salary cap when it comes to the very specific sector of "being a politician"; for all the acknowledgement that we need to attract the best candidates, it is understood that people become MPs for reasons beyond a desire for a good paycheck.

So why not cap salaries? Or, if that's too much, why not copy the lead of the 1974 government, and introduce an effective top rate of 98 per cent – a cap in all but name.

Such a cap would have a number of positive side-effects, including reducing inequality and ending the distortionary effect the "super-rich" can have on a community, but the main advantage it could have depends greatly on how organisations respond to it. If the wage-pool of the top executives were reduced tenfold, that money could be redistributed to other workers, which would be great, or it could be hoarded, which would be not so great.

But there is a third possibility. Yglesias suggests that extremely high marginal tax rates – which fill the same role as salary caps – were responsible for Bell Labs, the famous corporate R&D department which developed, amongst other things, radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser and UNX. [He wrtml):

If you're a corporate executive and you know that 90% of any additional income that you pay yourself is going to go to the federal government, suddenly using the corporate account to buy yourself fun new toys instead looks like an appealing alternative. And what could be more fun than a giant wacky research lab!

And presented as a choice like that, it suddenly becomes a whole lot less clear that high tax rates, at the very top end, are such a bad thing. Crazy gated Wild West vanity project, or lasers? I know what I choose.

Welcome to the Wild West. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR