Not Taxing the Rich Is What’s Radical

David Leonhardt of The New York Times points out that not taxing the rich is the radical idea:

Imagine for a moment that a presidential candidate made this speech:

My fellow Americans, I’m here today to tell you about my economic plan. Each year, I will require every middle-class family across this great country to write a check. We will then pool the money and distribute it to the richest Americans among us — the top 1 percent of earners, who, because of their talent, virtue and success, deserve even more money.

The exact size of the checks will depend on a family’s income, but a typical middle-class household will hand over $15,000 each year. This plan, I promise all of you, will create the greatest version of America that has ever existed.

You would consider that proposal pretty radical, wouldn’t you? Politically crazy. Destructive, even. Well, I’ve just described the actual changes in the American economy since the 1970s.

Economic output — known as G.D.P. — per person has almost doubled over this period. But the bulk of the bounty has flowed to the very rich. The middle class has received relative crumbs.

If middle-class pay had increased as fast as the economic growth, the average middle-class family would today earn about $15,000 a year more than it does, after taxes and benefits. Instead, that middle-class family effectively forfeits the money to the rich, year after year after year….

The extreme redistribution of income — upward — has multiple causes. Some of them, like technological change, stem mostly from private-sector forces. But government policy plays a crucial role. Tax rates on the wealthy have fallen sharply. Labor unions have been undermined. Big companies have been allowed to grow even bigger and more powerful. The United States has lost its lead as the most educated country in the world.

More often than not over the past 40 years, our government has helped the rich at the expense of everyone else. As a result, economic inequality has reached Gilded Age levels.

In the face of these trends, the radical response is to do nothing — or to make inequality even worse, as President Trump’s policies have. It’s radical because soaring inequality is starting to threaten the basic fabric of American life. Many people have grown frustrated and cynical. Average life expectancy, amazingly, has fallen over the past few years.

Over the sweep of history, the main reason that societies have declined, as the scholars Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have written, is domination “by a narrow elite that have organized society for their own benefit at the expense of the vast mass of people.” The name of Acemoglu’s and Robinson’s book on this phenomenon is, “Why Nations Fail”.

It’s worth keeping all of this in mind when you hear critics (or journalists) describe the economic proposals of the Democratic presidential candidates as “radical.” They’re not radical, for the most part. The proposals are instead efforts to undo some of the extreme economic changes of recent decades and to ensure that most Americans workers — not just a narrow elite — fully benefit from economic growth.

The proposals also happen to be popular, broadly speaking. On social issues, like abortion and immigration, the country is deeply divided. But clear majorities support higher taxes on the wealthy, higher taxes on corporations, more education funding and expanded government health insurance. No wonder: Americans don’t resent success, but they do resent not receiving their fair share of economic growth.

The coming primary campaign will be a good time for the candidates to hash out which specific ideas make sense and which don’t. So far, the agenda looks pretty good. Elizabeth Warren has a plan to increase workers’ power within companies — and help them get larger pre-tax raises. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris want to lift the after-tax pay of the middle class and poor. Kirsten Gillibrand and others support reducing major living costs, like child care and education.

Perhaps most important, some Democrats have begun pushing for a wealth tax — to reverse the upward redistribution of the past 40 years. Warren has proposed an annual 2 or 3 percent tax on large fortunes. Bernie Sanders has proposed a big increase in the inheritance tax.

These wealth taxes are a classic example of policies that are less radical than their opponents claim. Do you know who already pays a wealth tax? Middle-class Americans. It’s called the property tax, as Noah Smith of Bloomberg Opinion has noted. Every year, homeowners pay a percentage of their house value in tax. A house, of course, is the biggest asset that most families own. If middle-class families can pay an annual tax on their main source of wealth, wealthy families can, too.

The United States as we have known it — optimistic, future-oriented and more powerful than any other nation — cannot survive the stagnation of mass living standards over many decades. I’m glad to see that some political leaders understand this and are trying to recapture a core feature of American life….

For these progressive taxes to be enacted, the Democrats will have to take the White House and the Senate in 2020 and hold onto the House. The Senate will be competitive, but the Republicans probably have the edge, given the particular states that will have Senate races.

Meanwhile, Republicans want to eliminate the estate tax, which they recently weakened. As of this year, it only applies to estates worth more than $5 million.

On a related note:

On Tuesday, a pair of baffled [Fox News] anchors referred to [talk about higher taxes on the rich] as a movement “against capitalism.” It is a dubious assertion, because by that definition the U.S. has only been a capitalist country since the 1980s, when Reagan knocked the top tax rate even lower and conservatives convinced enough legislators that “a rising tide lifts all boats” was a substitute for economic policy. But in their efforts to find an explanation for why so many people are turned off by unfettered, unregulated, and unaccountable capitalism, they turn to Charles Payne of Fox News Business. His explanation: Schools have brainwashed kids with lessons about “fairness.”

Let Them Eat Cake, But Raise Their Taxes

Newly-elected Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (aka AOC) is the youngest person in Congress. She is becoming very well-known. Last week, she was asked about funding the Green New Deal, the plan to eliminate U.S. carbon emissions and move away from fossil fuels within ten years. This is what she said:

Once you get to the tippie-tops, on your $10 millionth dollar, sometimes you see tax rates as high as 60% or 70%. That doesn’t mean all $10 million dollars are taxed at an extremely high rate. But it means that as you climb up this ladder, you should be contributing more.

Right-wingers immediately screamed that a tax rate that high would be the equivalent of slavery. They didn’t bother to point out that she was referring to the “marginal” tax rate, the percentage at which income over a certain threshold is taxed. That’s very different from taking 60% or 70% of someone’s entire income.

The economist Paul Krugman explains why the 60% or 70% marginal rate is an excellent idea:

The right’s denunciation of AOC’s “insane” policy ideas serves as a very good reminder of who is actually insane.

The controversy of the moment involves AOC’s advocacy of a tax rate of 70-80 percent on very high incomes, which is obviously crazy, right? I mean, who thinks that makes sense? Only ignorant people like … um, Peter Diamond, Nobel laureate in economics and arguably the world’s leading expert on public finance…. And it’s a policy nobody has ever implemented, aside from … the United States, for 35 years after World War II — including the most successful period of economic growth in our history.

To be more specific, Diamond, in work with Emmanuel Saez — one of our leading experts on inequality — estimated the optimal top tax rateto be 73 percent. Some put it higher: Christina Romer, top macroeconomist and former head of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, estimates it at more than 80 percent.[

Where do these numbers come from? Underlying the Diamond-Saez analysis are two propositions: Diminishing marginal utility and competitive markets.

Diminishing marginal utility [i.e. the value of something at the margin] is the common-sense notion that an extra dollar is worth a lot less in satisfaction to people with very high incomes than to those with low incomes. Give a family with an annual income of $20,000 an extra $1,000 and it will make a big difference to their lives. Give a guy who makes $1 million an extra thousand and he’ll barely notice it.

What this implies for economic policy is that we shouldn’t care what a policy does to the incomes of the very rich. A policy that makes the rich a bit poorer will affect only a handful of people, and will barely affect their life satisfaction, since they will still be able to buy whatever they want.

So why not tax them at 100 percent? The answer is that this would eliminate any incentive to do whatever it is they do to earn that much money, which would hurt the economy. In other words, tax policy toward the rich should have nothing to do with the interests of the rich, per se, but should only be concerned with how incentive effects change the behavior of the rich, and how this affects the rest of the population.

But here’s where competitive markets come in. In a perfectly competitive economy, with no monopoly power or other distortions — which is the kind of economy conservatives want us to believe we have — everyone gets paid his or her marginal product. That is, if you get paid $1000 an hour, it’s because each extra hour you work adds $1000 worth to the economy’s output.

In that case, however, why do we care how hard the rich work? If a rich man works an extra hour, adding $1000 to the economy, but gets paid $1000 for his efforts, the combined income of everyone else doesn’t change, does it? Ah, but it does — because he pays taxes on that extra $1000. So the social benefit from getting high-income individuals to work a bit harder is the tax revenue generated by that extra effort — and conversely the cost of their working less is the reduction in the taxes they pay.

Or to put it a bit more succinctly, when taxing the rich, all we should care about is how much revenue we raise. The optimal tax rate on people with very high incomes is the rate that raises the maximum possible revenue.

And that’s something we can estimate, given evidence on how responsive the pre-tax income of the wealthy actually is to tax rates. As I said, Diamond and Saez put the optimal rate at 73 percent, Romer at over 80 percent — which is consistent with what AOC said.

An aside: What if we take into account the reality that markets aren’t perfectly competitive, that there’s a lot of monopoly power out there? The answer is that this almost surely makes the case for even higher tax rates, since high-income people presumably get a lot of those monopoly rents.

So AOC, far from showing her craziness, is fully in line with serious economic research. (I hear that she’s been talking to some very good economists.) Her critics, on the other hand, do indeed have crazy policy ideas — and tax policy is at the heart of the crazy.

You see, Republicans almost universally advocate low taxes on the wealthy, based on the claim that tax cuts at the top will have huge beneficial effects on the economy. This claim rests on research by … well, nobody. There isn’t any body of serious work supporting G.O.P. tax ideas, because the evidence is overwhelmingly against those ideas.

Increasing marginal rates as income rises is called “progressive” taxation. It’s fair and practical. Republicans are against it, preferring a “flat” tax, where all income is taxed at the same rate. A flat tax let’s the rich keep more of their income. They say it’s fair and simple, but that’s not why they’re for it.

Avoiding Individual-1 for the Most Part

I’ve mostly blogged about politics since the beginning of the crisis (you know, the crisis known as “Individual-1”). Other topics haven’t seemed worth writing about.

But, even though Individual-1 is still happening, I haven’t posted anything lately. That’s because, two months ago, I took a break from American politics. At the end of June, I stopped reading the digital front pages of The Washington Post, The New York Times and the U.S. edition of The Guardian. I also stopped looking at New York Magazine‘s “Daily Intelligencer” and Twitter. I was sick of my mind being polluted by the latest Individual-1 “news”. 

Instead, I began looking at international or “world” news. (Even in the U.S., we’re part of the world, right?) I’m told my mood improved, which shouldn’t have been a surprise, even though some American news made it through. For instance, The Guardian puts selected American stories on their international page. And any other contact, direct or indirect, with the rest of humanity meant that I might be exposed to the latest turmoil and trouble.

Helped along by last week’s positive legal developments, I started looking at U.S. news again. I didn’t immerse myself in it as much as before, but this wasn’t a great idea. Even limited exposure has been depressing. This means I probably won’t be writing much until the November election — an event on which hope for America’s redemption rests.

Before going, however, I’ll mention a few articles I’ve come across that are worth reading.

First, philosophy professor Bryan Van Norden explains why people have a right to speak, but not necessarily to be heard. He argues that some people aren’t entitled to an audience:

Access to the general public, granted by institutions like television networks, newspapers, magazines, and university lectures, is a finite resource. Justice requires that, like any finite good, institutional access should be apportioned based on merit and on what benefits the community as a whole. There is a clear line between censoring someone and refusing to provide them with institutional resources for disseminating their ideas. 

In other words, outlawing speech is a bad idea, but that doesn’t mean all opinions are equal or deserve equal time in the “marketplace of ideas”. Otherwise, (quoting the philosopher Herbert Marcuse) “the stupid opinion is treated with the same respect as the intelligent one, the misinformed may talk as long as the informed, and propaganda rides along with education, truth with falsehood”. And it becomes far easier to produce a political crisis like Individual-1.

On a related topic, a former Prime Minister of Australia writes about “the cancer eating the heart of Australian democracy”. The cancer he’s referring to is Rupert Murdoch, whose media empire “operates as a political party, acting in pursuit of clearly defined commercial interests, in addition to his far-right ideological world view”. Murdoch and his outlets like Fox News are one big reason why politics is so screwed up in the U.S. (Individual-1), the United Kingdom (Brexit) and Australia (five prime ministers in five years). Contrast that with politics in two other English-speaking nations, Canada and New Zealand. Their politics is a much more rational affair. Is it a coincidence that Murdoch doesn’t propagandize in either of those countries?

This week, James Fallows pointed out that it would only take one or two Republican senators to “serve as a check on [Individual-1’s] excesses”. As of now, the Republicans have a mere one-vote margin in the Senate. They will be ahead 51 to 49 after the late Senator McCain is replaced. As Fallows says:

Every [Republican] swore an oath to defend the U.S. Constitution, not simply their own careerist comfort. And not a one of them, yet, has been willing to risk comfort, career, or fund-raising to defend the constitutional check-and-balance prerogatives of their legislative branch.

On a related topic, Brian Beutler explains why there is a natural alliance between Individual-1 and Vladimir Putin (who, of course, is no longer a Communist):

For the white nationalists in [the Republican] coalition [including the president himself], Putin seeks a global alliance of white nationalist parties, and is meddling in elections world wide to help those parties gain political power. But … even more garden variety conservatives see their interests and Putin’s coming into alignment. Putin is deeply hostile to LGBT people, and frames his hostility in religious terms. The Russian economy is built on a broken foundation of fossil fuel extraction. American conservatives aren’t killing journalists and … opposition leaders, but they are hostile to journalism and democracy, and increasingly comfortable with both propaganda and exercising power through minority rule…. Russia’s political identity is shaped by its aggrievement over the crumbling of its once-vast empire. The American right is similarly revanchist—not over lost territory, but lost demographic dominance and privilege.

For now, the GOP’s congressional leaders remain nominally committed to the western alliance, and to treating Russia as an adversary. But they will not check [the president] as he advances the opposite view. Elite conservative opinion is already shifting on the Russia question, and should Trump ever convince a majority of Republican voters that he’s right about Russia, the congressional leadership will follow suit. Putin seems to grasp that, too. What we’re seeing, across several different plot lines, is that in many ways Moscow understood Republicans better than Republicans understand themselves. 

But let’s conclude with some good news. In an interview with The Atlantic, Senator Elizabeth Warren discusses “two aggressive proposals for overhauling American business”, i.e. making capitalism work the way it’s supposed to:

One [of her proposals] is the Accountable Capitalism Act, which would require the largest corporations to allow workers to choose 40 percent of their board seats. [This] is meant to provide an antidote to short-term thinking in the biggest businesses—and to short-circuit the ease with which CEOs make decisions that enrich themselves at the expense of workers and the underlying health of their firm. A similar system exists in Germany, and it goes by the name “codetermination.”

A second set of proposals is what Warren calls the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act. Warren has called for a frontal assault on lobbying, including a lifetime prohibition that would prevent federal officeholders (including the president, members of Congress, and Cabinet secretaries) from ever becoming paid influence peddlers. Her argument is that lobbying undermines the functioning of markets, by permitting corporations to exert outsize control over the regulatory state and use government to squash competitors.

It’s also good news that there are only sixty-nine days until the midterm election. On November 6th, we can quicken the demise of the Republican Party. We should make the most of the opportunity.

Summing Him Up

Last night, I was musing about the current crisis and asked myself again why they didn’t see that he’s a con man, so his promises about “the forgotten men and women of our country” were pure baloney. The answer that occurred to me was that he said what they wanted to hear about race and immigration. That was enough for them to give him the benefit of the doubt on economics.

This morning, Neera Tanden summed him up very well:

The economic populism was always the con. The racism was always real.

One of Those Charts

The last time we had a big overhaul of the federal tax code was in 1986. Back then, the poorest 90 percent of the population owned 3 1/2 times as much as the richest 1/10th of 1 percent. I’ll say that again. In 1986, the net worth of the least wealthy 90% of Americans was 3.5 times the net worth of the richest 0.1%.

That’s not the America we live in today. As of 2013, the richest 1/10th of 1 percent owned as much as the poorest 90 percent. To repeat: the net worth of the richest 0.1% was the same as the net worth of the poorest 90%. 

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I’m sure the red line goes even higher now and the blue line goes lower. We should keep this astounding economic inequality in mind when we have the opportunity to vote eleven months from now. That will be eleven months after the Republicans ram through another overhaul of the tax code, one that helps the richest Americans get even richer.

If They Wanted Real Tax Reform

The big story in Washington this week is the Senate Republicans scrambling to pass a major tax bill that nobody but their donors and other members of the plutocracy likes. Assuming something like it eventually becomes law, it will give a temporary tax cut to most members of the middle class and raise taxes for others, while giving a permanent tax cut to rich people and corporations. It will also add more than a trillion dollars to the deficit while requiring billions of dollars to be cut from programs like Medicare. (There is a nice summary of the giant con here.)

Republicans and even some journalists are calling it “tax reform”, even though it will make our system of taxation worse than it already is.

Wondering what real reform would look like, I read a book called A Fine Mess: A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer and More Efficient Tax System. It’s by a journalist named T. R. Reid. After a lot of research and conversations with tax experts around the world, he reached the same conclusion most experts have. The simplest, fairest and most efficient system of taxation is based on the “Broad Base, Low Rate” (BBLR) model.

The BBLR idea is that countries should tax as much as possible while keeping rates as low as possible. So, in the case of income tax, it’s best to tax all kinds of income at the same low rate. That means getting rid of deductions, exemptions and credits, many of which benefit people with the highest incomes, while categorizing things like health insurance benefits from your employer as personal income. That’s the “broad base” part. Once you’ve broadened the base and made more income subject to taxation, you can then lower everyone’s rates (that, obviously, is the “low rate” part).

The BBLR approach has a number of benefits. Filing and auditing tax returns is far simpler. Since rates are low and everyone’s income is treated the same, fewer people are tempted to avoid or evade taxes. Also, decisions about things like buying a house or building a factory tend to be made on the merits, not on the basis of tax considerations.

Reid also thinks the U.S. should institute a Value Added Tax (VAT). It’s a kind of sales tax, but one that is applied at every step of the manufacturing or distribution process, i.e. whenever money changes hands. We are the only rich country in the world that doesn’t have a VAT. Since it’s a tax on consumption, not income or savings, a VAT apparently has beneficial effects on a nation’s economy. It’s also difficult to evade. That’s why everyone else has one.

Another change Reid recommends is to reduce taxes on corporations. The U.S. has a high corporate tax rate, which results in corporations devoting a lot of effort to reducing or even eliminating their taxes. He thinks it would be better if all of the income people receive from corporations, especially dividends and capital gains, were subject to the same tax rate as other income (today, supposedly in order to foster investment, that income is taxed at a lower rate, which again mainly helps the wealthy). In fact, in a very interesting article in The Washington Post earlier this month, Reid advocated eliminating the corporate tax altogether, since it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do.

What surprised me most about A Fine Mess, however, was that some of the ideas Reid endorses are included in the Republican tax bill. (Seriously, it doesn’t happen very often that there is overlap between “Republican policy” and “good idea”.) For instance, the Republicans have talked about getting rid of the deductions for medical expenses, state and local taxes and interest on mortgages. They would try to offset the disappearance of those deductions by increasing the standard deduction and lowering everyone’s rates. The result would be that more income would be taxed, but at a lower rate (that’s BBLR). Another result, not so beneficial, would be that millions of average taxpayers, for example, those who have major medical expenses or live in states with high taxes or who have big mortgages, would get a tax increase, even if their tax rates were lowered.

Unfortunately, the Republicans want to combine their few good ideas with many bad ones. For example, they want to get rid of the estate tax, which only affects the truly wealthy, and give more favorable treatment to certain kinds of business income (it’s been said that the Republican tax plan could have been written by Trump’s accountant). They also want to reduce taxes on the rich so much that they’ll have to cut social programs like Medicare, while adding more than a trillion dollars to the deficit.

Reid points out that Congress tends to produce a major tax bill every 32 years. The last one was in 1986. Congress worked on it for two years. The bill had bipartisan support and actually deserved being called “tax reform”. This year, the Republicans are trying to pass their bill in a matter of weeks, without hearings and without input from the Democrats. That indicates how screwed up our government is and how far away we are from getting actual reform.

This Chart Shows Who’s Winning at Capitalism

Capitalism involves competition. Competition involves winning. This chart shows who’s winning. Unless we change the rules, it shows who’s already won.

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The gray line represents inflation-adjusted income growth in the U.S. between 1946 and 1980. The gray line is higher on the left side of the chart than on the right, because, in those years, annual income growth for low-income people (the people on the left of the chart) was higher than income growth for high-income people (the ones on the right). That meant people who made less money were gaining (however slowly) on people who made more.

As you can see, the red line goes in the other direction. It shows income growth between 1980 and 2014. The red line is higher, in fact way higher, on the right than on the left because income growth for high-income people (the ones on the right) was much higher than for low-income people (the ones on the left).

In other words, since 1980, people who made more money pulled away from people who made less. The fact that the red line goes straight up at the end shows that the people who made the most money (not just the 1% but the 0.1%, 0.01% and 0.001%) pulled away even faster. Thus, since 1980 (when Ronald Reagan was elected), the better off you were, the better off you’ve done. And the worse off you were, the worse off you’ve done.

The chart is from a column by David Leonhardt of The New York Times. He goes into some of the nuances and suggests ways to fix this growing inequality:

Different policies could produce a different outcome. My list would start with a tax code that does less to favor the affluent, a better-functioning education system, more bargaining power for workers and less tolerance for corporate consolidation.

He also notes that the president* and his Republican co-conspirators are trying to make the situation even worse. They want the opposite of what’s needed: even lower taxes for the rich, less money for public education, weaker unions and less competition for big corporations.

So the chart shows who’s been winning. What it doesn’t show is that the game may already be over. Increased wealth translates into increased political power. But the more power you have, the easier it is to change the rules so that you can accumulate even more wealth (viz. the Citizens United decision). From the point of view of the upper 0.001%, it’s a virtuous circle. For the rest of us, it’s vicious.

Unless we fight back – which means being more politically active, as in voting every chance we get – it will become even vicious-er.