It is true that higher labor redeployment costs slowed Europe’s transition away from manufacturing. Yet that doesn’t explain why young, talented European workers clung to jobs in declining industries while their American counterparts eagerly walked away from promising careers to join risky startups.
In the United States, higher payouts drove increased risk-taking. Success from that risk-taking raised the bar for success. The most promising U.S. students flocked to business schools and worked much longer hours than their underutilized counterparts in Europe, whose work effort declined. The success of these American workers created Google Inc., Facebook Inc. and countless other companies that gave the U.S. workforce more valuable on-the-job training. That training increased the chances for entrepreneurial success.
Entrepreneurial success put equity into the hands of investors willing to underwrite the risks that produce innovation. No surprise, the United States has more equity per dollar of GDP than Europe and Japan, and has produced more innovation. Although commercializing the Internet may have created a tailwind, a lot of that tailwind was earned.
Government spending was also much lower in the 1990s than it is today: 18 percent of GDP versus 24 percent. State and local government spending was lower, too. As a result, President Bill Clinton’s across-the-board tax increase paid down debt, which strengthened the U.S. economy.
Today, higher taxes are needed to fund an increase in unproductive consumption, which slows growth. Taxing income that otherwise would have been invested as equity in order to retire cheap offshore debt seemed like bad economic policy in the 1990s. With 20-20 hindsight, however, it turned out to be an ideal time to sell overpriced equity to pay off debt. That’s not the case today when equity is dear. Far from showing that tax rates and government spending have no effect of growth, the 1990s provide evidence that payoffs for risk-taking and the accumulation of equity matter.
The debate over whether to tax, redistribute and consume income that would otherwise be invested is critical to the future of America. The nation can’t afford to base its decision on superficial arguments. The country deserves better from a leader such as Warren Buffett.
Edward Conard was a partner at Bain Capital from 1993 to 2007. He is the author of “Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong.”