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Friday, May 20, 2011

Ever More Taxation

Recently, a friend pointed me to an article that made the rather surprising claim that "by historical standards, what we pay in federal taxes - rich, poor and everyone in between - has gone down."

Surprising, and not true.

I conveniently happened to have a table lying around that shows historical federal tax revenue. In constant 2005 dollars, 50 years ago (in 1960), federal government revenue was $631 billion. In 2010, it was $1,919 billion (i.e. $1.9 trillion) or three times as much. So by historical standards, we're paying a hell of a lot more on average.

There are more people now, so I also did the calculation on a per capita basis. In 1960 the federal government revenue per capita was $3,518, while in 2010, it was $6,215, or nearly double. Again, these are in constant 2005 dollars. I graphed per capita revenue and it basically shows relentless increases in per capita (and total) collected taxes. There is a bit of chop (i.e. the trend is not perfectly smooth), but it's definitely clear what the trend is - up, up, and up.

So while we spend about the same or less per capita for most goods and services due to increasing technology and efficiency, my question is why do we need to be taxed twice as much per person to fund government as we did 50 years ago? Why is the baseline assumption, even among tea partiers, that we should be taxed a constant percent of GDP, which means increasing taxes forever (assuming GDP keeps growing), instead paying the same amount of taxes per person over time (adjusted for inflation, of course)? Why is the base assumption that government should expand (beyond population growth) forever? Do we really need ever more taxation, ever more government regulation, ever more government intrusion, and ever more government redistribution?

Just wondering.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Musical Trespassing

A while back, I was trying to explain to my daughter why illegally copying music was stealing. To my surprise, she simply could not see why it was considered stealing. Since she's an intelligent, fairly sophisticated, and reasonably honest person, her response made me question my assumptions.

I've since decided she's right. Copying music may be somewhat like trespassing, but it's almost nothing like stealing.

The intangible property of value that you own when you create music is the copyright, not the song itself. The copyright can be bequeathed in your will, sold, etc., much like tangible property. On the other hand, you don't directly have ownership in any of the copies of the song.

When I copy a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a song, I'm not stealing or directly affecting your ownership of the copyright in any way. This is very similar to when I walk across your land uninvited, I'm not stealing your land or directly affecting your ownership of the land in any way. I merely trespassed, which while illegal in the US (but not other countries such as Sweden), is a much different level of moral and legal breach than theft.

Indeed, unlike laws against stealing which are derived from fundamental western morals ("thou shall not steal"), copyright is only a legal issue, has no objective or traditional moral component, should only exist only to further the arts and sciences (according to the U.S. Constitution), and is really only even relevant if a substantial majority of people believe it has a net benefit to society (which, to the dismay of the record companies is becoming less and less true by the day).

I think that calling copyright violations stealing is derived from the legal marketing of the recording industry and other stakeholders in monopoly rents from copyright. After all, what better way to get the public on your side than to try to assign an erroneous but much morally stronger word to the violation of a law you strongly care about.

My daughter and her friends are right, copying is somewhat like trespassing, but not at all like theft.