Thursday, 19 October 2017

Why Facebook should be taxed and how to do it

The new information technologies have created a whole range of companies that have become extremely profitable. The most successful ones are in the list of the top ten most valuable companies in the world. Valuable here means the monetary value of all outstanding shares of these companies; their capitalization as economists call it.
Alphabet (better known as Google), Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Alibaba, are worth $ 400 billion or more in the stock markets. They produce hardly anything tangible. They "make" information. These information companies are extremely successful. They also give rise to new problems.
The most salient characteristics of information companies is that the marginal cost of the information they produce is zero. To make a YouTube movie you have some fixed costs, such as a camera, a laptop and an Internet connection. But once the video has been made, you can broadcast it without increasing costs. Whether there are 10, 100 or 100,000 viewers of the movie does not change the costs of the movie producer anymore. The marginal cost (the cost of one additional unit viewed by someone) is zero.
That’s not all. The more viewers the moviemaker reaches, the more valuable his YouTube movie becomes. If he/she reaches an audience of, say, 1 million viewers, advertisers will be interested and will be willing to pay the creator of the video for placing ads. The more viewers there are, the more the advertiser is willing to pay. The YouTube producer thus produces something that has a marginal cost equal to zero and a marginal revenue that increases with the number of viewers. The more people reached with the movie, the richer the moviemaker gets without having to do something special.
Such a business model creates a number of problems. The first one is that information companies create a lot of economic value without the use of many production factors. You hardly need employees to generate a lot of income. Facebook with a capitalization of $ 400 billion employs 21,000 people. Walmart, which has a capitalization of 220 billion, has 2.1 million employees. Thus Facebook that is almost twice as large in terms of capitalization than Walmart counts only one percent of the number of employees of the latter. This means that a very high level of economic value is distributed to very few people. An inequality time bomb.
A second problem has to do with the fact that the people who join such an information platform (for example Facebook) actually give away information about themselves for free. This information becomes more valuable as more people join the platform. The big data on private information makes it possible to place highly targeted ads. The dream of all advertisers.
So companies like Facebook produce information that generates a lot of revenue using as ”raw material” the private information that they acquire for free from their users. They are great money machines generating huge wealth that hardly has to be shared and can be kept by the happy few in these companies.
Such a situation is untenable. More and more economic value is distributed to less and less people. What can be done about this? Here is my proposal. Facebook realized $ 26 billion in advertising revenue in 2016. This revenue was actually made possible thanks to the free "raw material" of the information provided by Facebook users. The government could apply a tax of 50%, for example, assuming that at least half of that income is due to the free information. That means 13 billion dollars. There are now about 1.23 billion Facebook users. So that means (rounded) $ 10 per user and per year. That seems to me to be a good estimate of the yearly value of the information provided by the individual user to Facebook.
So my proposal becomes: a 10-dollar tax per user to be paid by Facebook. Zuckerberg will be a little less rich after this tax, but will still have a lot of money left.
There are many issues with such a proposal. It should preferably (but not necessarily) be coordinated internationally. Not an easy thing. There is also the issue of what the government should do with the revenue. One possibility would be to return 10 dollars to the Facebook users every year. Alternatively, the government could use the revenue to invest in education, the environment or sustainable energy.

I think these are separate issues that can be resolved and that do not stand in the way to tax Facebook and other information companies (e.g. Google, Amazon) that use private information freely and transform this into a fabulous money machine that benefits only a few. 

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Catalonia and Brexit: the same nationalism

The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, will not enter the history books as an enlightened leader. However, when in 2014 he had to decide to allow the Scottish referendum, he used his brain and opened the door for the referendum. It took place on September 18, 2014. Only 45% of the Scotts voted for independence.
The contrast with the referendum in Catalonia could not be greater. The Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy stupidly decided to use violence to prevent a referendum in Catalonia, despite the fact that a peaceful referendum would most probably have led to a similar outcome as in Scotland. Spain and Catalonia are now on collision course; a situation that could have been avoided if the Spanish Prime Minister had not suffered from dogmatism and a degree of nationalism equaling in intensity the Catalan version.
The Catalan nationalists now have been given a fantastic boost thanks to Rajoy's stupidity. The TV images of Spanish robotic police officers hitting old and young to prevent them from voting create a perception of an oppressed people fighting for their freedom.
Nothing could be further from reality. The Catalans are not an oppressed people. They have a high degree of autonomy. They can organize their own education in their own language. No obstacles exist for the cultural development of Catalonia. It is the most prosperous region of Spain. Barcelona is a bustling city like no other in Spain. The Catalans are heard at the regional, national and European level. The image of an oppressed people is ludicrous.
Catalan nationalism is of the same kind as British nationalism that led to Brexit. It is based on a number of myths.
The first myth is that there is an external enemy. For the Brexiteers these are the European authorities (the European Commission, the European Court, etc.), which impose their arbitrary will on Britain. For the Catalan nationalists the enemy is the Spanish government oppressing the Catalan people.
The second myth is that the people who fight for their independence have a clearly defined identity. The task of national politicians is to listen to the will of the people. There can be only one voice. There is no room for different and opposing voices. The British government is now calling for patriotism. The opponents of Brexit are not true patriots.
The third myth is that independence will generate unsuspected economic prosperity. When the people “take back control” they will have the tools to achieve maximum economic prosperity. That is today the argument of Brexiteers like Boris Johnson. When Brexit will be realized (preferably as soon as possible), Britain will have achieved its true destiny. "Global Britain" will take over from the protectionist EU. Great Britain will merrily conclude free trade agreements with the rest of the world, which will lead to unprecedented prosperity. A similar argument of more prosperity for an independent Catalonia is heard from Catalan nationalists today.
The reality is that globalization undermines national sovereignty. This happens in many ways. One example. Large multinationals blackmail national governments in Europe, with the result that corporate taxes decline almost everywhere. In no country, however, is there a will of the people in favour of reducing these taxes. Yet this is the outcome because governments act as national entities. Were they to decide jointly on corporate taxes in Europe, multinationals would be unable to blackmail these governments and there would be no creeping decline in corporate taxes.
Another example. International trade today is not influenced so much by tariffs but by non-tariff barriers. Large countries decide about standards and the regulatory environment that will govern trade. There are now essentially three countries, the US, the EU and China that can aspire to decide about the nature of these standards and rules. The other countries play no role in this game. Thus when Great Britain exits from the EU so as to gain more sovereignty (“to take back control”), this gain is only formal. In fact its real sovereignty declines. Obviously the same holds for Catalonia.
We arrive at the following paradox in a globalized world: when nationalists pursue more formal sovereignty they achieve less real sovereignty of the people. They want to take back control and they end up with less control. That’s what Great Britain will end up with. That’s also what the Catalan nationalists will achieve if they pursue their nationalistic dreams.
This paradox has a corollary: when countries in Europe renounce formal sovereignty this leads to more real sovereignty of the peoples of Europe.