How not to report on the poor and the wealthy

By Felix Salmon
July 23, 2012

The media has not exactly covered itself in glory when reporting on money-related research of late. For instance, consider Martha White’s blog post at Time.com on Friday. Here’s the headline:

Would You Pay $520 in Interest to Borrow $375? 12 Million Americans Did Last Year

White cites “a payday lending report” from Pew for her datapoint — but, unforgivably, doesn’t link to it. If she had linked to it, she might have read the report a bit more carefully: it’s clear that the average interest paid on a $375 loan is $65, not $520. The $520 figure comes from multiplying the $65 number by eight, on the grounds that the average payday borrower takes out a loan eight times per year. Which in turn means that the $520 in interest is paid on $3,000 in loans, not $375 in loans.

(Update: The vast majority of payday borrowers never take out more than one loan at a time, so most of the time, the maximum principal balance is $375. The Pew report was careful to say it was talking about eight $375 loans, which is a more accurate way of putting it than saying $3,000 in loans. But it’s doing 12 million Americans a disservice to imply that they are willingly entering into deals knowing that they will pay back $520 in interest on a single $375 loan, even if that’s how it often ends up.)

Then, over the weekend, a series of stories — starting with the Observer, and moving on to Reuters and elsewhere — started writing about the trillions of dollars sitting in offshore bank accounts. All of them use the word “hidden” or its cognates, and all of them were based on a report from the Tax Justice Network (me neither), which is very long on hyperbole. This, for instance, from the main section of the report, gives a flavor of how it reads:

The subterranean system that we are trying to measure is the economic equivalent of an astrophysical black hole… The way is hard, the work is tedious, the data mining is as mind-numbing as any day below surface at the coal face…

The assets of these countries are held by a small number of wealthy individuals while the debts are shouldered by the ordinary people of these countries through their governments… In terms of tackling poverty, it is hard to imagine a more pressing global issue to address.

The report does concede, grudgingly, that in fact the governments in question don’t have net debts at all: these countries, on a sovereign level and taking into account no private assets at all, are net creditors rather than net debtors. But still we’re told that “ordinary people” are shouldering massive debts which should somehow by rights be either serviced or paid off using the wealth of these countries’ plutocrats.

The reality is that the wealth of the global super-elite does not, actually, cause poverty; nor is there any obvious way of using it to alleviate poverty. Bill Gates, for instance, the richest of the lot, is putting an absolutely enormous amount of effort into trying to use his wealth to alleviate certain pockets of poverty; the jury’s still out on whether or when he might see real success on that front.

The conceit of the report is that if all offshore wealth was instead held onshore, and if that onshore wealth produced a certain amount of income, and that if all that extra income were taxed at top marginal rates, then there would be lots of lovely money for governments to spend on making poor people rich. Or something.

But the fact is that there’s a good reason why countries tax income and not wealth: for all that I personally think that a wealth tax is a very good idea, I can’t think of any country in the world, other than the USA, which could effectively levy such a thing.* The world’s wealthy don’t pay taxes on their wealth; they never have, and they never will. And because of the way they live, in a stateless cocoon, it’s a bit silly to expect them to reinvest most or all of their wealth back into their country of origin.

If you’re extremely wealthy and you come from one of the countries on the list here — Russia, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina, Indonesia, Nigeria, Malaysia, Ukraine, you get the picture — then obviously you’re going to keep a huge amount of money offshore, whether you made your money in a legal or in an illicit manner. And while some of the reason might well be tax avoidance, much of it is going to be simply the fear of expropriation and/or confiscation — again, be that legal or illicit. And since your investments are going to be global, it does make sense to park your money in jurisdictions which have proven themselves good at safeguarding individual wealth, as opposed to plundering it.

The total amount of wealth in the world is not an easy number to estimate, but it’s probably somewhere in the $250 trillion range. A lot of that wealth is financial, and a lot of financial wealth is held “offshore”, whatever that means these days. This new report says that roughly $25 trillion is held offshore by the wealthy, which just means that roughly $25 trillion is held offshore: after all, poor people by definition don’t have bank accounts in the Cayman Islands. That’s an interesting datapoint, but it’s not much more than that.

What’s unhelpful and sensationalist is to lead off your press release (and therefore lots of news articles) by saying that that amount “is equivalent to the size of the United States and Japanese economies combined”. That’s just a cheap way of comparing a stock with a flow, since GDP figures don’t measure wealth at all, but rather income.

“Rich people are rich” is not much of a story, although I can see why certain people want to make it one, by reframing it in terms of inequality or tax evasion. Similarly, “poor people find it difficult to stay on top of their finances” is not news either, and there’s therefore a temptation to sex it up a bit by making it seem that people are paying more in interest than they’re borrowing in principal. But as a rule, if you see a headline about these kind of issues and the story cites a report without linking to that report, be very suspicious. There might be a lot less there than the story you’re reading would have you believe.

*Update: There are in fact six countries with a wealth tax: France, Switzerland (in certain cantons), Liechtenstein, Holland, Norway, and Italy. In none of them is it an obvious success.

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