As an exercise, consider a comparison between three imaginary villages. Everything will be simplified so that the comparison won’t be confounded by extraneous factors. The villages are mostly identical as well, so comparison won’t be difficult. Let’s start by describing one of the villages; the others are the same in every factor that is mentioned. They have the same housing, the same stores, the same prices in those stores, the same transportation, the same living conditions. That’s the beauty of the example. Nothing is different between the villages except what is called out below.
There are ten identical households in a village. In each of the ten identical households there is a wage-earner, who works regular hours and brings home income, which is used by the household to purchase their necessities and some extras. Each worker in the ten households gets the same wage as the other nine, pays the same tax as the other nine, has the same debt, and the same requirements for necessities, such as shelter and food. There aren’t any significant differences between the ten.
In village 1, workers receive a hundred units of money a week. They spend ninety on necessities, save five and use five for extras.
In village 2, workers receive a hundred fifty units of money a week. They spend ninety on necessities, pay interest on their onerous debts with fifty, save five and use five for extras.
In village 3, workers receive a hundred twenty-five units of money a week. They spend ninety on necessities, pay taxes with twenty-five, save five and use five for extras.
These conditions do not change and nothing external disturbs the arrangements.
Which village is better off?
Households in village 2 have great debt and are forced to spend one third of their income on debt interest and never get a chance to pay it off.
Households in village 3 and burdened with onerous taxes which consume twenty percent of their income. They have no way to escape from these taxes.
Households in village 1 have no debts whatsoever and are fortunately free from taxation.
In this example, nothing changes, so the only way to make a comparison is to look at current conditions. There is some emotional attachment that certain people have with debt, so they would necessarily regard village 2 as worse off. Other people have a strong feeling about taxes, and would therefore regard village 3 as worse off. These are not rational reactions.
The only thing that affects the life of the people in the households in these three villages is the amount of money they have left over to spend on necessities, savings and extras. It is identical in the three villages. The three villages have exactly the same standard of living. They would not be separable if you went to the villages, looked them over, and tried to compare them. In each house you visited, life would be the same in the three villages. You could count their possessions, discuss their activities, compare their health, examine their educations, and every last one of these would be identical. You would be unable to discern any difference from any observation of their lives or their environment. The paint on their houses would be the same, the depth of the tread on any vehicles they have is the same, the trimming of their lawns is the same. The commute times are the same. The electric usage is the same. The water and sewer systems are identical.
The purpose of this example is to make the distinction between irrelevant differences and important ones. Net income is important. Whether that income is affected by debt or tax or anything else is irrelevant if the net income is the same. The level of debt is not worth noting. The percentage of taxation is irrelevant. These are simply economic accounting processes and there could be many other variations, besides the simple debt interest and taxes that subtract from gross income to make net income. They would be irrelevant as well.
Why then is there so much concern about debt and taxes, if they are only accounting labels for subtractions from gross income? Even gross income is irrelevant, except as an input into the accounting for the weekly payment to the workers. Village 2 is paid more than village 3 which is paid more than village 1, yet the higher wages mean absolutely nothing.
It may be true that there are a hundred ways to structure a debt, and economist can have some good times figuring them all out, but it means nothing in comparison to net income. Taxes can also take a hundred forms, and there can be a vast amount of clever thinking expended in arranging them. They are irrelevant in all forms. What matters is net income and how it relates to the expenses of the household.
The units of the payments are also irrelevant, as money is simply another accounting device. What matters is the purchasing power of the money, and if had a different label or unit, it would make no difference in our example.
We are not going to be able to construct a just and decent economic system if we concentrate on accounting intricacies and financial constructs. Yet that is what most economics discussion does concentrate on. To make a good economic system it is really necessary to look past these gimmicks of rearranging the distribution of economic benefits and drill down on what is important. It is the final distribution of benefits that makes the difference.
Perhaps some schemes for rearranging benefits are simpler and easier to implement than others. The simplicity or complexity of such schemes are largely irrelevant. These schemes should be regarded as only the means to accomplishing the end, which is the final distribution of income. Labelling various schemes or the details of various schemes as just or fair or real or the inverse of these attributes does absolutely nothing except obscure what economics should be concentrating on: final distributions.
Someone’s infatuation with one of these particular schemes, that is, with one of the means of determining the final distribution, should not be allowed to interfere with the assessment of the final distribution. That final distribution is what should be assessed and the design of it is what should occupy most of the thinking of an economic theory. Perhaps some of these schemes can be more easily explained, but that does not mean anything at all. Some of them might be more easily propagandized, and again, this means nothing.
The final distribution of incomes is the principal subject matter of a just deserts economic theory. There are two ways of approaching the subject, a micro and a macro approach. The micro approach answers the question of how the details of the distribution affect the recipients. Does it motivate them? Does it ring true with the actual utility provided by those receiving the benefits? The macro approach answers the question of change. How does some distribution arrangement lead to a growth in the total annual benefits production. What is the tradeoff between the diversion of benefits into savings and the growth rate of benefits?
There can also be a long discussion on the mechanisms by which savings happen. There can be mandatory rules for savings, or forced savings which happen earlier in the income stream than the receipt of the residual benefits by those they are going to. There can be various supplemental benefits for savings, or threats of future calamity if savings are not at a certain level. These make as much difference as the debt and tax levels. In other words, none at all. What matters is how much goes into savings, which is another name for capital formation.
The discussions of how savings, or capital formation, is translated into increases in productivity, also known as increases in benefits, is something that needs to be part of an economic theory. Exactly how the savings are implemented or enforced or encouraged is not a top-level consideration. What matters is the determination of what happens to productivity when savings are different levels.
After the theory finishes with both the micro approach and the macro approach, from the broadest perspective, then it might step down a notch and figure out how the few simple quantities that make up this overview might be implemented. Note here that the key word is implemented. To be precise, the word implemented does not mean anything except the generation of details to make something happen. If the overview figures out that five percent savings is right for a balance between immediate consumption and future consumption, then all the rest of the work is simply determining some accounting schemes, such as debt, taxes, withholdings, or whatever, to make that happen. Any economic theory which starts at the bottom and tries to work upward is necessarily doomed to failure. There is simply no way sets of details can be mashed together to make up a coherent theory.