What should a country do when it has
- Massive accumulated debt and annual deficits predicted to grow indefinitely.
- A rapidly growing population of retirees heavily dependent on expensive entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
- A national Congress which is unwilling to make significant spending cuts for fear of offending powerful constituent groups.
- Growing income inequality and wealth inequality.
- A stagnant economy and high unemployment which makes inequality worse.
- An inefficient income tax system which does not take in enough tax revenue to pay the bills.
The best response by far is to implement broad-based, pro-growth, tax reform. I have often discussed how to make major changes to our current income tax system. I have also described an attractive way to introduce a consumption tax, the so-called Graetz Plan.
Another way to reform taxes is to introduce a wealth tax. The economist Ronald McKinnon has described a way to do this in a Wall Street Journal column, “The Conservative Case for a Wealth Tax”. His plan is to implement a federal wealth tax in addition to the federal income tax. It would consist of a flat tax of about 3% imposed on household wealth in excess of a $3 million exemption which would exclude 95% of the population. In addition to bringing in a significant amount of new revenue each year, which is its principal objective, it would serve the purpose of making a flatter, pro-growth, income-tax system more palatable to people who are concerned about inequality, and therefore to a much wider audience.
The economics journalist, Daniel Altman, recently reported in the New York Times, “To Reduce Inequality, Tax Wealth, not Income” that American household wealth totaled more than $58 trillion in 2010. The most recent issue of Forbes Magazine reports that there are now 492 billionaires in the U.S. with a total wealth of $2.3 trillion. A 2% tax on the wealth of just these billionaires alone would raise $46 billion. A 0.5% tax on the wealth of all Americans would raise $290 billion annually. These examples show that a “moderate” wealth tax could bring in a significant amount of new tax revenue which would make a big dent in shrinking our annual deficit.
We have to do something and do it quickly. The problem will occur when interest rates return to their normal level as they surely will before long. When this happens, interest payments on our national debt will sky rocket. It’s going to be painful regardless, but let’s try to head for the softest landing we can manage!