Class Warfare Blog

August 13, 2019

Have You Ever Heard of Unearned Income?

How do you describe “pure” socialism? For most people it is “the government” (aka “We The People” in the US) owns the “means of production.” So, the government owns all of the businesses, factories, etc. and we all work together to benefit one another. Unfortunately, this ideal too often became totalitarian socialism, in which a political elite took over the system and it served the elite much more than it served the people as a whole. In some modern countries, the idea of democratic socialism seems to be working better.

What brought this to mind is I was reading an interview of an author on the Naked Capitalism website and the interviewer, John Siman, stated and asked the following:

John Siman: You have got me thinking about what economics—political economy—was originally supposed to be: a liberation from feudalism, from greedy rentiers and so the freedom for the common man to enjoy the fruits of his own labor and for the enterprising man to undertake great business projects. We should tax only unearned income!—that’s what the classical economists taught, right? So my deep worry: Are our academic neoclassical economists really latter-day medieval theologians, using arcane learning to uphold the privileges—specifically, to protect the unearned income—of a corrupt elite? After two or three centuries is the Enlightenment over as we enter a new feudalism? (It seems to me that we are already in a new Gilded Age.)

To unpack this (there is a lot going on) you need to know a few things. For one “rentiers” are not “renters” or even landlords per se, they are “people living on income from property or investments.” A good example of such are shareholders in a corporation. They receive dividends or profit on sales from that stock and that money was, for a very long time, referred to as “unearned income,” money earned by means other than the “sweat of one’s brow.” And, “political economy” was the original name for the study of economics, politics referring to interactions of people and economy being “involving money.”

You probably learned about feudalism in school. This was a system whereby “royals” owned the land and, basically, the people who worked it (serfs). They didn’t claim absolute ownership, but serfs were not free to pack up and leave, they were “tied to the land.” And even if they did pack up and leave, there were no “jobs” to be had in nearby locations. It strikes me that feudalism was a form of socialism. “The government” absolutely owned the means of production (including the serfs). This was not benign socialism, this was totalitarian socialism. (Not that the “rulers” didn’t ever do anything for the “ruled.” There were limits to what the “rentiers” could extract. Abuse your serfs/slaves too much, e.g. starve them by confiscating too much of the crops they raised, and they wouldn’t be able to work. And, please, do not try to convince me that having a local “central committee,” as in modern socialism, is substantially different from having a local earl or duke, the “government” in feudal times. “Remote and autocratic” describes both.)

So, as feudalism broke down, capitalism was created. And so was “economics” whose first fruits, apparently, were to craft a “liberation from feudalism, from greedy rentiers and so the freedom for the common man to enjoy the fruits of his own labor and for the enterprising man to undertake great business projects.” (Merchants were the first members of the “middle class,” that is between rich and poor, and widely despised by the elites.) And one of their first ideas was that “We should tax only unearned income!”

This practice balances the playing field, economically, between the rentiers and people who worked for a living. Selling one’s labor is a fine idea, but there is a limit: you only have so much labor to sell. But rentiers are unlimited in the amount of property or investments they can accrue. The well-to-do can become wealthy, the wealthy can become rich, millionaires can become billionaires and I assume we will soon see billionaires become trillionaires. Since wealth can be converted into political power, the scales of politics are tilted heavily in favor of the wealthy. To balance the scales, the early “political economists” established the idea of only taxing that rentier income and not taxing honest labor.

I have written recently (at least I think it was recently) on the disappearance of the term “unearned income” from public economics discourses. (Economists may still use it privately; I don’t know.) The term has basically vanished. And, out of sight, out of mind. The term is obviously connected to the core idea of those early economists, to only tax unearned income, and it flies in the face of the narrative of the wealthy that “they built it,” that they earned everything they have. My favorite example of this thinking was Mitt Romney, who claimed to have earned everything he owns, while at the same time his rich and powerful father (George Romney: chairman and president of American Motors Corporation from 1954 to 1962, the 43rd Governor of Michigan from 1963 to 1969, and the United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development from 1969 to 1973, etc.) gave him two $2,000,000 “to get started” and access to his influential and wealthy colleagues. (I remember this figure because during my almost 40 years of work as a teacher, I earned about $2,000,000 (both numbers are uncorrected for inflation). If I had been given $2,000,000 to “get started” I would not have had the gall to make the claim Romney does.)

The disappearance of the term “unearned income” from public discourse was no accident. And, if you use the term now, most people will be confused by it. The elites have scammed the system so well, that they have managed to get earned income taxed at a higher rate than unearned income (through the capital gains tax and others)!

So, capitalism was created to protect us from “feudal socialism.” What now can we get to protect us from capitalism and its captive economists? (Economists aren’t evil people, but their field has been captured by the rich. Oppose the rich strongly enough and you will no longer have either a reputation or a college professorship. Economists do know which side of the bread the butter is on.)

1 Comment »

  1. Hey, I must have had a damn good education. I knew what rentiers were/are and I had heard of unearned income way back as well.
    LOL, my spell checker didn’t know rentier!
    Now I must be honest here and tell you I first encountered rentier while in grade school. I thought it meant a person who rented an apartment/home/farm/some such place. I looked the word up in the handy library dictionary and wow, got a surprise and learned anew word. I also came across unearned income, probably about that time, but most likely in high school.
    I’m with you here also, had Dad given me $2,000,000.00 to “start out”, I’d never be so stupid to claim I ‘earned it all on y own. Mitt, I got one for ya. Liar, liar socks on fire. Pants are so passe. Stole that liar bit from LOL cats.
    We should tax unearned income and let the actual workers keep their hard earned money to get the basics and what else they may be able to buy. What the hell, I may be part socialist. Marx was still a wimp. And he was wrong. From each according to their skills. To each according to their needs? The guy discounted human nature, big time.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Walter Kronkat — August 13, 2019 @ 2:58 pm | Reply


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