Skip to Content

Tobin tax - what a joke

The call for a Tobin tax—a tax on financial transactions—is not "anti-capitalist", as some in the "anti-globalisation movement" seem to think.

It is all very well being against something but if this is to be anything more than permanently protesting against some never-ending problem you've got to be for something too. Most of those who organise the "anti-capitalist" and "anti-globalisation" protest demonstrations don't seem to have thought it through this far, and those that have show themselves not to be against capitalism. What they are against is what some of them call "neo-liberalism"—by which they mean the return of laissez-faire economic policies. What they are for is to go back to a more regulated capitalism. They merely want states to intervene to try to control capitalism, to make it more human, to suppress what they see as its worst excesses.

A case in point is the French-based organisation, with branches in many other countries, ATTAC whose vice-president is Susan George, author of such readable and informative books as How The Other Half Dies and A Fate Worse Than Debt. Their hobby horse is a call for the so-called "Tobin Tax", as is reflected in their full name: "Association for a Tax on financial Transactions and for Aid to Citizens".

James Tobin was (actually, he's still alive) an American Keynesian economist who, after the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement on exchange rates collapsed in 1971 when America floated the dollar, proposed a tax on currency transactions as a way of reducing speculation. Here's how he has recently described his proposal:

"This tax aimed to limit exchange rate fluctuations. The idea is simple: on each operation a minimum levy is made equivalent to, say, 0.5 percent of the transaction. Enough to put off speculators. For many investors place their money for very short periods in currencies. If this money is suddenly withdrawn from the market, countries have to raise their interest rates considerably so that their currencies remain attractive. But high interest rates are often catastrophic for the internal economy, as the crises which hit Mexico, South East Asia and Russia in the 1990s show. The Tobin tax would give back some margin for manoeuvre to the central banks of small countries to fight against the tyranny of financial markets" (interview with Der Spiegel, reproduced in Le Monde, 11 September 2001).

Tobin got the idea from Keynes who had suggested a national tax on internal financial speculation as one of his reforms to get out of the Great Depression of the 1930s. The idea was to encourage money-capital to be invested productively instead of being used for unproductive speculation. Tobin was given a Nobel Prize for Economics in 1981 (not that this is worth much in academic terms; it's little more than a monetary prize), but no government took up his proposal. In fact, for it to work, all governments would have to take it up. That was why he suggested it should be paid to the World Bank or the IMF.

The Bretton Woods agreement had laid down fixed rates of exchange between currencies, in particular with the dollar which in turn was tied to a fixed amount of gold ($35 an ounce). Devaluations and revaluations were allowed; in fact that is what a "devaluation" was: a formal downward change in a currency's fixed rate of exchange with other currencies. This system collapsed at the beginning of the 1970s when the Nixon administration announced that the US was no longer prepared to exchange gold at $35 an ounce. So began the present period of floating exchange rates.

Today, the rate of exchange of a state's currency is determined by market forces: the demand for it in relation to the desire to sell it, which in turn depends essentially on a state's balance of trade. The more it exports the higher will be the demand from foreigners to buy it (to pay for the exports) while the higher its imports the more will be the supply for sale as importers sell it for foreign currencies (to pay for the imports). This is not to say that states don't try to maintain a more or less stable rate of exchange. They do, but their only weapons now are short-term interest rates or getting their central bank (and/or some other central bank or banks) to buy and sell their own currency. But these are not always that effective as was demonstrated by Britain's ignominious exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992 under pressure from speculators led by George Soros.

The collapse of Bretton Woods coincided with the last years of the long post-war boom, and was in fact a sign that it was coming to an end. When the boom did end, or rather, fizzled out corporations found themselves with large "cash mountains" made up of money they would normally have re-invested but which they didn't because it was no longer profitable to do so. This money thus became available for currency and other forms of financial speculation.

Essentially, speculation is the use of money-capital, not to invest in the production of new wealth and new surplus value, but unproductively to try and swindle other capitalists' out of their past profits. It's a zero-sum game in which the total amount of profits remains the same but merely gets redistributed differently amongst capitalists depending on their speculative skills.

The statistics show that most international monetary transactions are now of this nature. Production of course continues and has even been increasing slowly if in fits and starts, so some international transactions are linked to productive activity—transfer of capital to be invested get things the wrong way round; there is so much money available for speculation because there are not enough profitable investment outlets. Even if speculation was made less profitable by, for instance, the imposition of a Tobin Tax this would not increase productive investment. To do that you would have to increase the rate of profit or expand markets, but that's not something that can be done by any tax.

The horse wouldn't drink

What would happen would be the same as happened in Japan over interest rates. The government there thought that what has been discouraging investment was not low profit prospects but too high interest rates. So they reduced short-term interest rates to zero—but nothing happened. They learned the hard way that you can take a horse to water but you can't make it drink. Japanese capitalists hadn't been not investing because of high interest rates but because of low profit prospects. Similarly, capitalists have been speculating rather than investing productively, not because the gains to be had from speculation are too high but because the gains to be had from productive investment are too low.

Actually, ATTAC are not agreed on why they want to impose an international tax on currency transactions. Some want to do this to encourage productive investment and so employment (on the mistaken arguments above). Others want to use the revenue to help the so-called Third World; which, of course, assumes that speculation should continue as the cow to be milked for this purpose. Susan George has explained the arguments here:

"One of the aspects of this tax is to slow down speculation, i.e. making money with money without passing via an exchange of commodities. It could build up a mass of money to help essentially the citizens of the South since it is there that the needs are. At the moment, there is a debate within ATTAC about whether we want a high tax to stop speculation or, on the contrary, a less high one to restrain speculation while building up this financial aid to the citizen. Personally, I prefer the second option" (Le Soir, 24 September).

It is for this reason that you find different rates being mentioned in ATTAC literature from 0.01 percent to 0.1 percent to the 0.5 percent that Tobin himself suggested (but he wanted to stop speculation and was not particularly concerned how the money raised was used).

George's preference for a low rate, to raise money to spend in the Third World, is in accordance with ATTAC's main declared aim, but it involves calling people on to the streets not to denounce capitalist exploitation, but to demand a minimal tax on the financial transactions in which capitalists try to swindle each other out of the proceeds of their past exploitation of the working class. It really is one of the most pathetic reform proposals for which people have ever been called upon to demonstrate for. Of course, people are right to protest against the deal capitalism is meting out to the poor in the capitalistically-underdeveloped parts of the world, but the Tobin tax is not going to help them in the least, even if the political will and technical means to implement it could be found.

Tobin was—and still is—an unrepentant Keynesian. Despite the fact that the main result of implementing Keynesian policies was a 30–40 year period of permanent inflation, Susan George and ATTAC are essentially "global Keynesians", people who want to apply on a global scale Keynes's ideas on how to make capitalism work better. George in fact has openly called for the adoption of Keynesian policies. As she put it in the Le Soir interview we have already quoted:

"Our leaders must be more serious and move towards Keynesian solutions, as was the case after the Second World War. We need a Marshall Plan for the environment, for reducing inequalities in the world and particularly in the South".


"We don't expect le grand soir [a derogatory French term meaning "the Revolution"], but a more democratic type of economy. The market will have its place, but not all the place".

What ATTAC, and their equivalents in this country, the campaigning non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Oxfam, the World Development Movement, Christian Aid, etc (not that some of them are all that "non-governmental", given the grants they get from the state), want is to retain the world market economy but to try to control it for the benefit of humanity, to humanise it. Their hearts may be in the right place but this is to display an incredible lack of vision as well as an appalling ignorance of the way capitalism works, and has to work.

Capitalism operates according to the rules of "no profit, no production" and "can't pay, can't have" and, as the world market system, is what is responsible for the desperate plight of most of the world's population. Before anything lasting and constructive can be done about this, capitalism has to go. The productive resources of the Earth have to become the common heritage of all humanity, so that production can be directed to meeting people's needs—all people's needs—instead of to making profits.