The Agenda

Tim Lee on the Rise of the Super-Gadfly

Wikipedia, for all its flaws, has a really lovely definition of the term “social gadfly“:

Gadfly” is a term for people who upset the status quo by posing upsetting or novel questions, or just being an irritant.

Tim Lee is one of my favorite non-irritating gadflies, and he’s written a great post riffing on the experience of David Alpert, a tremendously talented pro-transit blogger who has single-handedly shaped the conversation on transit and density and quality-of-life issues in the D.C. metropolitan area. Lee observes that Alpert has the time and freedom to pursue his labor of love because he was an early Google employee, and thus made a nontrivial sum once Google went public:

 

One of the perverse things about the confiscatory tax levels that prevailed in the mid-20th century is that it created systematic disincentive to do high-risk, high-reward entrepreneurship. Given a choice between a startup with a 20 percent chance of paying $10 million after 5 years, or working a steady corporate job at $100,000/year for 20 years, there’s a good case for taking the former option. But if the $10 million is going to be taxed at 70 percent (so you’d only get $3 million if the business succeeded), young, smart workaholics are far more likely to take the safe corporate job with the lower marginal tax rate. And of course things look even grimmer if the top rate is 91 percent.

Notice also how hard it would be for someone to do what Alpert is doing without being in his financial position. GGW is incredibly successful as a vehicle for citizen involvement, but I doubt it gets enough traffic to pay anyone’s rent. And it would be incredibly difficult to persuade a third party like a foundation or think tank to pay someone to do a niche blog like GGW. Only when the same person has both the relevant knowledge and interests andthe financial resources to focus on it full-time is this kind of work possible.

Libertarians and conservatives often highlight the economic benefits of allowing people to keep more of the money they earn. Yet there are important social and cultural benefits as well: 

People tend to be most effective when they’re spending their own money on stuff they’re passionate about. Which means that there are large benefits from the fact that, thanks in part to changes in tax law, millions of Americans are now wealthy enough to pursue their idiosyncratic (and maybe not very profitable) passions full-time.

Tim discusses this idea at greater length in a post at Cato’s blog. Many people are deeply bothered by the rise of large and influential charitable foundations, seeing them as a malign source of private power. Not surprisingly, I tend to see them as enablers of social experimentation. I also think it’s important to keep in mind people like Alpert, not just the spectacularly wealthy Sergey Brin and Larry Page. There are thousands of Americans who’ve made small fortunes and thus have the freedom to pursue quirky projects that contribute to our lives in ways that are hard to measure in the GDP statistics but that are real nonetheless.

The case for facilitating wealth creation is in part a case for creating more Alpert-like super-gadflies, people with the time and the skills they need to transform their neighborhoods, towns, and cities for the better.

To be fair, one needn’t accumulate wealth to become a super-gadfly: people who command a high hourly wage can also work fewer hours, devoting a large share of their time to non-remunerative work or social production. This is one possible result of hiking marginal tax rates. That said, this wouldn’t allow for the kind of single-minded devotion Tim has in mind. Then there is the fact that large inheritances — never very popular — have also been a great spur to risk-taking and valuable social production, as well as, well, other things.

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