Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

Upward Redistribution


There has been much public discussion of who exactly pays taxes and who gets government benefits ever since Mitt Romney’s now-famous fundraising speech was made public. Almost all of this discussion has focused narrowly on what the government actually takes from people in tax revenue and what it pays out in Social Security, unemployment insurance, and other benefits. This is unfortunate, because tax and transfer policy is the less important way in which the government helps or harms people.

The set of rules the government puts in place that structure the economy redistributes far more income than its tax and transfer policy. Starting with an obvious example, the government has destroyed millions of manufacturing jobs through a trade policy that puts U.S. manufacturing workers in direct competition with low-paid workers in the developing world. This policy has also had the effect of driving down wages in other sectors as the displaced manufacturing workers are forced to compete for jobs in retail or elsewhere in the service sector.

Note that this is not free trade. There are millions of very bright people in India, China, and elsewhere in the developing world who could easily train to U.S. standards for doctors, lawyers and other highly-paid professions. They would be happy to work in the United States for half the prevailing wage in these areas, leading to large gains to consumers and the economy, but we chose not to structure our trade agreements to facilitate trade in this area.

We have also strengthened patent and copyright laws to make the monopolies granted stronger and longer. Currently we spend $300 billion a year on prescription drugs. If drugs were sold in a competitive market, we would save around $270 billion annually. This transfer from consumers to drug companies is about five times as large as the size of the Bush tax cuts to the richest 2 percent.

Labor-management policy is another important area through which the government redistributes income. In the last three decades this policy has been much more friendly to management and hostile to workers. For example, in the Chicago teacher strike, Mayor Rahm Emanuel had gone to court and threatened strike leaders with fines and imprisonment if they did not end their strike.

There are many other areas in which the rules set by the government redistribute income. In the last three decades, the direction of redistribution has been mostly upwards. If we want to have a serious discussion of makers and takers, we have to look at these rules, not just the tax code.

Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy and False Profits: Recoverying From the Bubble Economy.

This column originally appeared in Debate Club.

Dean Baker is a macroeconomist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. He previously worked as a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and an assistant professor at Bucknell University.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases
John Grant
Humanizing Our Militarized Border
Franklin Lamb
US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes
Paul Bentley
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: the Silence of Dylan
Norman Pollack
Militarism: The Elephant in the Room
Patrick Bosold
Dakota Access Oil Pipeline: Invite CEO to Lunch, Go to Jail
Paul Craig Roberts
Was Russia’s Hesitation in Syria a Strategic Mistake?
Lara Gardner
Why I’m Not Voting
David Swanson
Of All the Opinions I’ve Heard on Syria
Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future
Rob Urie
Name the Dangerous Candidate
Pepe Escobar
The Aleppo / Mosul Riddle
David Rosen
The War on Drugs is a Racket
Sami Siegelbaum
Once More, the Value of the Humanities
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
Neve Gordon
Israel’s Boycott Hypocrisy
Mark Hand
Of Pipelines and Protest Pens: When the Press Loses Its Shield
Victor Wallis
On the Stealing of U.S. Elections
Michael Hudson
The Return of the Repressed Critique of Rentiers: Veblen in the 21st century Rentier Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Drumbeats of Anti-Russia Confrontation From Washington to London
Howard Lisnoff
Still Licking Our Wounds and Hoping for Change
Brian Gruber
Iraq: There Is No State
Peter Lee
Trump: We Wish the Problem Was Fascism
Stanley L. Cohen
Equality and Justice for All, It Seems, But Palestinians
Steve Early
In Bay Area Refinery Town: Berniecrats & Clintonites Clash Over Rent Control
Kristine Mattis
All Solutions are Inadequate: Why It Doesn’t Matter If Politicians Mention Climate Change
Peter Linebaugh
Ron Suny and the Marxist Commune: a Note
Andre Vltchek
Sudan, Africa and the Mosaic of Horrors
Keith Binkly
The Russians Have Been Hacking Us For Years, Why Is It a Crisis Now?
Jonathan Cook
Adam Curtis: Another Manager of Perceptions
Ted Dace
The Fall
Sheldon Richman
Come and See the Anarchy Inherent in the System
Susana Hurlich
Hurricane Matthew: an Overview of the Damages in Cuba
Dave Lindorff
Screwing With and Screwing the Elderly and Disabled
Chandra Muzaffar
Cuba: Rejecting Sanctions, Sending a Message
Dennis Kucinich
War or Peace?
Joseph Natoli
Seething Anger in the Post-2016 Election Season
Jack Rasmus
Behind The 3rd US Presidential Debate—What’s Coming in 2017