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
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder