Debt and Transparency

If one wishes to create a just deserts economic system in which benefits recieved are related to contributions made, then economic transparency is a must.

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Debt is one of the many instruments that societies use to adjust the benefits that different individuals and groups receive out of the total production of the society, and it has some commonalities with the others and some differences. One of the commonalities is that it is used to transfer production benefits from one individual or group to another individual or group. Taxes, subsidies, fees, fines, wages, salaries, tolls, alternative remuneration, and many others share this trait. One can design a socio-economic system using any of them to adjust the allocation of benefits among the individuals and groups, and a change in one of them, for example, a revision of the tax rules, can be thought of having a primary purpose of taking some wealth or income from one subset of the population and delivering it to another subset. Of course there could be a three-way redistribution or a four-way, and while these are interesting, let’s just look at the simplest case.

Debt is a number on an accounting ledger. The movement of benefits occur when the magnitude of the debt is changed, or the interest on the debt, if there is any, is paid. If A owes a debt to B, if the debt is increasing, A is receiving some benefits accounted for by that, and B is losing some. If A pays interest on the debt to B, B is receiving some benefits and A is losing some. If the debt is forgiven, A is receiving some benefit and B is losing some. If the debt is paid off, B is receiving some benefits and A is losing some.

If there is some higher-order regulation going on in the society, so that, for example, the governance is seeking to have some influence on who gets benefits and who loses them, they can do so fairly directly by taxation, which is typically within the purview of a government. Taxation, positive or negative, of the payment of interest on a debt can be done, and was historically part of the US code for many years before being eliminated. It was negative during that period for the payor, and still is for mortgage interest. Taxation, like every other type of transfer of benefits, has side effects, in that individuals and groups adjust their behavior based on their total benefits, including both debt and taxation. It also, like every other type of transfer of benefits, is gamed by those involved with it to maximize their own received benefits.

Like wages and salaries, debt can be transparent or opaque. However, with wages and salaries, the side losing benefits, the payer of the wages or salaries, is likely to be obvious, except for some small fraction of the remunerated work done. The payees are also fairly obvious, but the amounts can be confidential. With debt, it is the custom that one side is transparent and one side is opaque.

When an individual takes out a debt from an institution, it is really a debt between that individual and the owners of the institution. For an individual taking out a debt for the first time, or even beginning the arrangements for an eventual debt, the individual would not be disclosing any other debts, as there would be none. However, as part of the process by which an individual demonstrates his ability to handle the terms of the debt, the individual taking out a debt is forced to reveal all his other debts, as well as economic information which might inform the potential creditors about the individual’s likelihood of repaying that debt or otherwise complying with the terms of the debt. This information is in the direction of transparency.

Despite this, there is no comparable transparency on the part of the grantors of the debt. If it is an individual, there is no block of information on this individual’s total loans or other financial information. Perhaps for the purpose of the immediate loan, this is not relevant, as if the loaning individual has the wherewithal available, then it is irrelevant to the debtor what the other financial conditions of the creditor is, unless there is something in the contract that makes it relevant, for example, allowing the loan to be called in under certain conditions.

For the purpose of a governance-wide understanding of the financial condition of the population they govern, it is relevant. Because there are multiple feedback loops which can severely distort the benefits distribution in a governed area, this type of information would provide governance and anyone else who wanted to know, for example investigative reporters, with some data to help them form their conclusions. To be more specific, if it was true than ten individuals owned almost all the debt in a large region, and this was unknown, then those in governance could not readily assess what might happen under different sorts of regulations relating to debt and its associated details. Having this level of concentration of ownership of debt would indicate that the feedback loops associated with massively unequal distribution of wealth and income had already taken hold. Specific remedies to this type of distortion of the economic landscape could not be done so easily.

What is the value that a one-sided type of transparency, in this discussion related to debt but generally applicable to all economic transactions, relationships and conditions? Is it of value to the debtor that his/her economic situation be laid open to scrutiny by anyone seeking to consider him/her as a potential recipient of a loan, and then of value to the creditor that his/her economic situation be completely concealed? Rather, both of these situations, where the informational advantage is solely on the side of the creditor, are of value to the creditor and of potential harm to the debtor. The real difference is not simply related to some individual transactions, but it is intimately related to the ability of those in governance, those who study economics, and those who are concerned about the long-term stability of the socio-economic situation to understand quantitatively and specifically, what the actual distribution of benefits within the society is, how these relationships are structured, and how they change. This information protects the status quo, as zero change is typically the default decision made or advised on in the absence of information sufficient to draw any conclusions. This, for individual transactions, a one-sided transparency or even a two-sided transparency to these particular parties damages the long-term stability of the society.

There could be objections to the concept of transparency on the grounds that many or most transactions are not between individuals, but between an individual and a group, such as a partnership, company or corporation, or between two such groups. The objection is non-substantial however, as there must be ownership rights of any such group that ultimately lead to individuals. A bank, as an example, is owned by its stockholders or partners, and by dissecting the fractional ownership of any group down to the individuals behind the group, clarity can be obtained for all types of transactions. Another objection might be to the fact that there are transactions between individuals or groups within one governance region and individuals or groups within another one. This also subsides under the condition that any transaction or contract must be with one region, either as it was stated as one of the conditions of the transaction or contract that one of the two possible regions was to be the legal home, or because, in the absence of such a stipulation, that the one in which the contract was concluded is the legal home. In the age of the internet and video communications, having the stipulation could be made mandatory for any legal transaction involving individuals or group from two distinct governance regions.

What actions might be taken by the governance region, once it was armed with all necessary information gained by such transparency conditions? First off, statements would be rephrased. Instead of: “Such and such a subset of individuals has too much debt”, the same situation would be “such and such a subset of individuals has granted too much debt and has amassed resources allowing that which are far beyond anything that could be accumulated by a just deserts socio-economic system and such and such other group has been loaned money by them in excess of what is reasonable for them to pay.” The one-sided statement lacks so much clarity that it would be hard for the governance to decide what to do in response to it.

Demands for privacy in this or some other financial areas sometimes revolve around the fact that financial information provides an advantage in negotiations. However, stated another way, it means that some parties, individuals or groups, might be deluded by their own assumptions, or mislead by another party, if there was not full financial disclosures by both parties to all transactions. To campaign for the right to delude and mislead is not the most promising course for a subset of people trying to gain favor from people involved with setting up a new socio-economic system. Neither is a cause for privacy made by the desire of some to conceal accumulations far in excess of what could be possible if earnings were made proportional or less to the amount of contributions, measured by the combination of time and talent and excluding secret information. Thus, it would seem that a socio-economic system based on just deserts principles would demand a high degree of economic transparency everywhere in the system.

Monopoly Taxes

Monopolies are ubiquitous in a socio-economic system, and should be treated from the first in designing such a system. This post discussed their variety and a means of taxing them so as to minimize the negative effects.

A monopoly is a corporation or interconnected group of corporations acting together who control a large fraction of the market share of some class of product. One could have a monopoly in a commodity, such as corn or steel or lithium, or a manufactured product, such as the works of Mark Twain or cell telephones or automobile exhaust systems, or even services, such as plumbing or visa applications or computer repair. These are examples of the class of products, or services, which could be affected by a monopoly. They could also be wide-ranging in scope, such as with a supermarket corporation which controls all imported food, not some individual food commodity, or a fossil fuel corporation, or a electrical energy corporation or many other examples.

Monopolies might be good as they could be more efficient than a myriad of other smaller companies which together met the demand for the product, or provide less expensive products, if they were able to use monopoly strength in the inverse direction, such as by demanding from non-monopolistic suppliers that they maintain low prices. They could have superior products, as if they demanded employees or subcontractors to have a high level of education and experience, as with electricians and doctors. They could have less environmental burden if they occupied less space with some centralized distribution network. Surely inventive public relations people from monopolies could come up with even more benefits.

Monopolies might be bad as they could raise prices and profits on the products they supply, as they were free from the effects of competition, or free to a sufficient extent such that their benefits outweighed their non-competitive pricing. There could easily be a time effect, with a particular monopoly using the benefits, as seen by consumers or clients, during the period of formation of the monopoly, and later a net deficit, as the profiteering from these same customers and clients became more and more dominant.

In a novel economic system, being designed to provide benefits across society, what should be the treatment of monopolies? If the government or governments in the jurisdictions being considered become involved with economics, they could well encounter monopoly situations, and may want to decide on some regulations. What to do?

There are two feedback loops involved here. One involves the growth of the monopoly. As it becomes larger, mastering a larger share of some particular product, the benefits may kick in, and its efficiency may assist in eliminating competition, simply by being more efficient or convenient for consumers and clients. The other effect that happens is that they obtain more economic power, such as saved capital, which may allow them to purchase their competition, or otherwise influence them to go out of business or merge. This can happen if monopoly effects occur in one geographic location first, allowing the amassing of capital, which is then used in another geographic location, and then another, enlarging the area where monopoly effects occur.

The second feedback loop is the typical one where the corporation begins to suborn the politicians involved in governance, so that any regulation to remedy the ill effects of a monopoly is thwarted before it is ever begun, as the corrupted politicians simply use their own public relations messages to obscure its existence or otherwise excuse their failure to take actions. Thus, two strong feedback loops serve to initiate and encourage monopolies to come into existence and grow and eventually take over the market for some product.

Infrastructure costs can assist in the formation and activity of a monopoly. If the initial costs of a transportation network, such as an airport or highway network, or a distribution pipeline, such as for water or electricity or information, or a collection system, such as waste disposal or a stock market, are very high compared to the remainder of the costs involved, no competition can afford to build a similar system, and if the infrastructure is owned by some entity that also provides services or products via the system, a monopoly is immediately in force, even without any other actions on the part of the provider. Thus there are two distinct classes of monopolies, one which is thrust into being by the necessary existence of a single network of something or other involved with a product, and another which arises without the aid of any item of infrastructure.

There may be other classes of monopolies which depend on the unique existence of some single item. For example, if there is only one known mine of a particular ore that has sufficient content of a particular commodity, and the mine is owned by one competitor, an instant monopoly exists. The same happens if the number of mines is plural, but they are all owned by one competitor, or one competitor makes covert arrangements with the owner or owners of the mines which will lead to the generation of a monopoly and the subsequent enlargement of profits for all those involved with that commodity. If patent or copyright laws disallow the use of some unique information, this is also an instant commodity.

Regulations, perhaps written by those politicians with close connections to the purveyors of a particular commodity or a service, which control the sales of it, might serve to create a monopoly. There might not even be a corporation involved in the commodity or service, just a number of individual purveyors who prefer to have entry into the group of those allowed to purvey the commodity or service limited to numbers which ensure high profits or costs to that limited number. Thus commodities can arise from limited and controlled supplies, which might be something as physical as a mine or something as intangible as regulations. This latter effect might actually be involved with improving the quality of the commodity or service, or might only be involved in giving the impression that the quality of the commodity or service is improved by the regulatory throttling of the supply. This is another effect of a monopoly that does not necessarily fall into the beneficial category or the malevolent category, but somewhere in between.

What should a socio-economic system do about such monopolies? They can only come into existence if the governance either organizes them or otherwise condones them, as with almost any other good or bad effect in the system. The socio-economic system has to work in such a way to foster monopolies for them to come into existence, and there may be multiple components of the system which have to be involved, such as finance or communication or regulation. It is necessary to go back to the goals of the socio-economic system to find out if monopolies, or a particular one, has a net benefit according to these goals. If unlimited inequality of benefits received is a goal of the system, support for monopolies would be the consequence of that choice of goal. If limitations on inequality of benefits received, distributed and consumed is a benefit, then some monopolistic arrangements might be negative in net benefit. Like everything else in a socio-economic system, the arrangements that are best are wholly dependent on the goals that are chosen. As noted elsewhere, fundamentals of the system are the allocation of benefits and their total quantity, and other goals that might be chosen, such as the ratio of manufactured products per total energy consumed, don’t have the tight connection with the population being served.

To solve the negative aspects of monopolies, government regulation can be utilized, where regulation might include both taxation and permissive or mandatory laws. Taxation is a flexible tool, as monopolies are usually involved with the provision of necessities to the population, and permissive and mandatory laws tend to interfere with it in a less gradual manner.

One form of taxation might be a simple tax based on market share. If a list of commodities can be created, and the data collection capability of the region is sufficient, market share by entity, corporation or partnership or anything else, can be calculated and a tax level on revenue or profit can be established to accomplish some aspect of the goal of both maximizing quantity of the product while ensuring its allocation is not too exclusive. Taxes on revenue is more effective as profit can be disguised very easily if management and ownership are not separated, as an individual can receive either a bounty based on fractional ownership, if that is not taxed too highly, or he could be granted a position within the entity and paid a large salary, if that is not taxed too highly. It must be remembered that human beings within a socio-economic system will incessantly game the regulations, so some ingenuity is needed to prevent the more obvious gaming tactics from being universally employed. Of course, corruption must be dealt with in this area as well as in every other area, where corruption is defined as the seeking of personal benefits by someone charged with promoting society’s benefits.

An example of a market share tax might be one on, say, the distribution of natural gas. In a region where there is only one supplier, meaning the whole region is supplied by a single corporation, there would have to be first the opening of opportunity for competition, by the ownership by governance of the means of distribution within the region and the delivery to the region. Then competitors might be taxed so that competitors with revenue under 10% of the total market share were taxed not at all, and a positive rate applied, related to higher market share. The rate would steepen as the market share approached 100%. The taxation rate curve as affected by market share would have to be chosen so as to encourage competition, in other words, to overcome the feedback effects of market share, which eventually tend to produce a monopoly and its excesses.

Any such taxation scheme would involve the definition of multiple quantities, such as the region served. And such definitions would affect the profitability of the corporations involved, and therefore would be subject to the possibility of corrupt dealing. Thus, some standards would need to be found that could be applied in default, with some requirements for special justification for deviations from the default standard. Like everything in a socio-economic system, complexity abounds.