The occasion of the publication of Timothy Geithner’s book “Stress Test,” giving his version of the financial crisis, has led to a number of newspaper articles looking back at the Great Recession and its aftermath. The New York Times’ economics reporter David Leonhardt has such an analysis “A Rescue That Worked, But Left a Troubled Economy” in today’s NYT. “The Great Depression created much of modern American government and reversed decades of rising inequality. Today, by contrast, incomes are rising at the top again, while still stagnant for most Americans. Wall Street is flourishing again.”
“The financial crisis offered an opportunity to change this dynamic. But the (Dodd-Frank) law seems unlikely to transform Wall Street, and the debate over finance’s huge role in today’s economy will now fall to others. Should the banks be broken up? Should the government tax wealth? Should the banks face higher taxes?”
In my opinion, the real problem is not our financial system but the strong headwinds which are slowing down the economy.
Globalization of markets which creates huge pressure for low operating costs.
Labor saving technology which also puts downward pressure on wages.
Women and immigrants having entered the labor market in huge numbers, and therefore greatly increasing the labor supply.
The loss of wealth in the Great Recession also means that even people with good jobs have less money to spend. What we sorely need is faster economic growth to create more jobs and higher paying jobs. How do we accomplish this?
The best way to boost the economy is with broad-based tax reform to achieve the lowest possible tax rates to put more money in the hands of the working people who are the most likely to spend it. Such lower rates can be offset by closing the myriad tax loopholes and at least shrinking, if not completely eliminating, tax deductions which primarily benefit the wealthy.
Lowering corporate tax rates, again offset by eliminating deductions, providing a huge incentive for American multinational companies to bring their profits back home for reinvestment or redistribution.
With millions of unemployed and underemployed workers, reviving our economy with a faster rate of growth should be one of the very top priorities of Congress and the President. Survey after survey show that this is what voters want. Why isn’t it happening?
I seldom use the New York Times sociological columnist, David Brooks, as a source for my blog posts because I am focused primarily on economic and fiscal issues. But his column today, “Saving The System,” is highly pertinent to my message. “All around, the fabric of peace and order is fraying. The leaders of Russia and Ukraine escalate their apocalyptic rhetoric. The Sunni-Shiite split worsens as Syria and Iraq slide into chaos. China pushes its weight around in the Pacific. … The U.S. faces a death by a thousand cuts dilemma. No individual problem is worth devoting giant resources to. But, collectively, all the little problems can undermine the modern system.”
In addition to all of these pesky worldwide problems, our free enterprise economic system is under siege. Wages have been largely stagnant since the early 1970s and income inequality is growing as the top 1%, and perhaps the top 10 or 15% as well, do much better than everyone else. And just lately we have also learned from the French economist, Thomas Piketty, that wealth inequality has been growing steadily ever since about 1950 and is likely to get substantially worse in the future.
In other words, western civilization is under threat in more ways than one. What are we going to do about it? At the risk of oversimplifying, I believe that the single best thing we can do is to undertake fundamental tax reform to make our economy stronger. Cut everyone’s tax rates and pay for it by closing loopholes and deductions which primarily benefit the wealthy.
Lower tax rates will put more money in the hands of the two thirds of Americans who don’t itemize their tax deductions. These are largely the same people with stagnant wages and so they will spend this extra income they receive.
The resulting increase in demand will put millions of people back to work and thereby increase tax revenues which will help balance the budget. This shift of income from the wealthy to the less wealthy will reduce income inequality.
Although harder to implement politically, a low (between 1% and 2%) wealth tax on financial assets above a threshold of $10 million per individual, would be a highly visible way to address wealth inequality. The substantial sum of revenue raised by this method could be used to fund national priorities as well as paying down the deficit.
I don’t want to leave the impression that I consider this program to be a panacea for strengthening our country. But it would help and we need to make some big changes to maintain our status as world leader.
Yesterday’s New York Times has a very interesting article, “U.S. Middle Class No Longer World’s Richest”, demonstrating that from 1980 -2010 the median wage in many other developed nations has grown faster than in the U.S. The chart below does show that the U.S. median wage is still growing but just not as fast as elsewhere. The authors suggest three reasons to explain what is happening:
Educational attainment in the U.S. is growing more slowly than in the rest of the industrialized world.
A larger portion of business profits in the U.S. is going to top executives meaning less for middle and low income workers.
There is a higher degree of income redistribution (through taxation) in Canada and Western Europe than in the U.S.
The data presented in this article is more elaborate but nevertheless consistent with what other studies are showing. We are still on top but we need to make some major changes in order to stay there. For example:
Most states have adopted the national Common Core curriculum for K – 12 schools. In today’s highly competitive global environment, this will enable a more rigorous evaluation of educational attainment between the states and should, therefore, improve overall academic achievement.
The best way to raise salaries for middle and low-income workers is to boost economic output overall. Fundamental tax reform, with lower tax rates for everyone, offset by closing loopholes and lowering deductions for the wealthy, will put more money in the hands of the people most likely to spend it. This will increase demand and make the economy grow faster.
As a highly visible way of addressing economic inequality in the U.S., institute a relatively small, i.e. 1% or 2%, wealth tax on the assets of individuals with a net worth exceeding $10 million. This would raise up to $200 billion per year which could be used for an extensive infrastructure renewal program, creating lots of jobs and further boosting the economy, with a lot left over to devote to shrinking our massive federal deficits.
A program like this encourages everyone to work hard and reach their highest potential, including accumulating as much wealth as they are able to. But the people at the very top, i.e. the superrich, will be required to give back a little bit more in order to benefit the entire country.
The French economist Thomas Piketty is creating a huge stir with the publication in English of his new book “Capital in the 21st Century.” Mr. Piketty develops a very simple idea, with reams and reams of data. Namely that income from wealth, i.e. investment income, typically grows faster than income from wages and GDP. This means that the value of private capital is growing steadily as a percentage of national income. This trend has been occurring ever since 1950, at the end of WWII, and is likely to continue indefinitely absent new mega shocks to the global economy such as another world war. In other words, wealth inequality is rapidly increasing just as is income inequality. Today’s New York Times has an interesting article “Taking on Adam Smith (and Karl Marx)” discussing Mr. Piketty’s background and how it has influenced his research. “No revolutionary, Mr. Piketty says that inequality by itself is acceptable to the extent it spurs individual initiative and the generation of wealth. But extreme economic inequality, he contends, will have a deep and deleterious impact on democratic values,” says the reporter.
Now that income inequality and wealth inequality are clearly well documented, the question is how our democratic society will respond through the political process. First of all, we need to agree to take the problem seriously. Equality of opportunity and economic mobility still exist but it is getting harder and harder to move up the income ladder. What our country badly needs right now is an economic program that will get our economy growing faster in order to create more jobs as well as bringing in more tax revenue to pay for government.
One way to accomplish this is with
Broad-based tax reform to lower rates in order to put more money in the hands of people who will spend it on basic necessities as well as business expansion. Lower rates can be paid for by closing loopholes and deductions which primarily affect the wealthy.
A low percentage (1% or 2%) tax on wealth (i.e. financial assets) with a fairly high personal exemption of perhaps $10 million in order to only include the most wealthy. This would raise about $200 billion per year which could be used to fund a wide scale infrastructure renovation program which would provide employment to millions of people.
Such a wealth tax would be a highly visible means of addressing economic inequality in a way which would greatly benefit to the economy at the same time.
The Yale Economist and Nobel Prize winner, Robert Shiller, has an article in today’s New York Times, “Better Insurance Against Inequality”, proposing that “taxes should be indexed to income inequality so that they automatically become more progressive – meaning that the marginal tax rate for the highest income people will rise – if income equality becomes much worse.” We do know, of course, that income inequality is steadily increasing in the U.S. It is in fact essentially folklore that the top 1% of Americans is collecting a larger and larger share of the national income. Furthermore the French economist, Thomas Piketty, has recently shown that there is also “a relentless widening of disparity in wealth”.
Our democratic political system will surely respond in some way to this increasing gap between the rich and the poor. It is important to our future wellbeing to respond in a constructive manner. Today’s top tax rate of 39.6% is already very high and Mr. Shiller admits that the top rate would have to rise well over 75% in his plan.
Our biggest economic problem today is a stagnant economy. We badly need faster economic growth, in order to put people back to work and to bring in more revenue to shrink the deficit. Today what we need is lower tax rates, to put more money in the hands of people who will spend it, including potential entrepreneurs who will invest it in new businesses. Raising tax rates to address rising income inequality is therefore self-defeating as an economic strategy.
Rather let’s tax people’s financial assets after they have earned their money. A 1% wealth tax with a relatively high $10,000,000 personal exemption would bring in approximately $200 billion per year. $200 billion per year would enable us to pay down our deficit at a much faster rate as well as having a lot left over to begin an extensive infrastructure renewal program (for example)!
“Low interest rates aren’t working, but we need a debate about what will,” declares The Wall Street Journal’s William Galston yesterday in “Soaring Profits but Too Few Jobs”. “Corporate profits after taxes in the fourth quarter of 2013 rose to an annual level of $1.9 trillion – 11.1% of GDP, a postwar high. Meanwhile, total compensation – wages and benefits – fell to their lowest level of GDP in at least 50 years.” “Businesses are sitting on tons of cash . . . and they’re choosing to invest their capital in hardware, rather than hiring. The reason: they believe that investing in technology is likely to have a better effect on sales than hiring more people.” Furthermore, “today’s (low) interest- rate regime lowers the cost of capital – and therefore of capital investment relative to labor.”
Meanwhile,” Republicans are banging away at the Affordable Care Act while Democrats are busy scheduling votes on a grab bag of subjects designed to boost turnout from the party’s base in the fall elections. The economic problems we face are getting lost in the partisan din.”
We are in a very tough situation. Raising interest rates might give a marginal boost to hiring more workers over capital investment but it will also greatly increase interest payments on our massive and rapidly increasing national debt. And meanwhile we have a stagnant economy with millions of people either unemployed or underemployed. What should we do? How about
Boosting the economy with lower individual and corporate tax rates, paid for by cutting back on tax preferences. This will especially help small businesses grow and hire more employees. It will also encourage multinational corporations to bring their foreign profits back home for reinvestment.
Addressing rising income and wealth inequality by establishing an annual 1% wealth tax on individual assets in excess of $10 million. This will raise about $200 billion per year and could be used to set up a huge infrastructure improvement program to put millions of people back to work.
Interest rates will eventually return to normal levels of 5% or so and this will create a big squeeze on the federal budget. So we also need to get federal spending under control as soon as possible. But this is a separate issue.
Just boosting the economy and putting people back to work while addressing inequality in a very visible way will get us started on a path to recovery.
“Consider the following scenario. You are an airline pilot charged with flying a planeload of passengers across the Atlantic. You are offered the choice of two different aircraft. The first aircraft has been prepared by chief engineer Keynes and the second by chief engineer Hayek.
You have to choose which plane to use, so naturally you ask the advice of the two engineers. Keynes urges you to use his aircraft, offering a convincing explanation of why Hayek’s plane will crash on take-off. Hayek urges you to use his aircraft, offering an equally convincing explanation of why Keynes’s plane will crash on landing. At loss as to which plane to choose, you seek the advice of two leading independent experts – Karl Marx and Adam Smith. Marx assures you that it does not matter which aircraft you choose as both will inevitably suffer catastrophic failure. Similarly, Smith also reassures you that it does not matter which aircraft you choose, as long as you allow your chosen craft to fly itself.”
Thus begins a fascinating new book, “Money, Blood and Revolution: How Darwin and the doctor of King Charles I could turn economics into a true science,” by the fund manager and economist, George Cooper. Mr. Cooper sets up a circulatory model of democratic capitalism whereby rent, interest payments and profits flow from low income people at the bottom of the pyramid to the wealthy at the top. And then tax revenue (collected mostly from the wealthy) is redistributed downward in the form of government programs.
According to Mr. Cooper, the financial crisis was caused by a combination of lax regulation and excessive credit and monetary stimulus. The question is what to do about it. Mr. Cooper says:
Stop adding to the problem. High student debt and high mortgage debt are still being supported by government programs.
Change the course of the monetary river. Quantitative easing does not work because it just puts money into the hands of the wealthy and they have no incentive to spend it.
Change the course of the fiscal river. Instead put money into the hands of the people at the bottom of the pyramid with expanded government spending on infrastructure (paid for by taxing the wealthy).
Without endorsing all of Mr. Cooper’s suggestions, he nevertheless has many good ones and expresses them in a highly entertaining style!
Our dire fiscal and economic problems are crying out for a bold solution. We need to simultaneously stimulate our economy to grow faster and create more jobs, raise sufficient tax revenue to pay for our growing spending commitments, and address a widening inequality gap which threatens to undermine the basic principles of a free and just society. How are we going to accomplish all of these tasks at the same time?
It seems to me that the best way is to thoroughly reform our income tax system based on the following principles:
Lower tax rates on marginal income to encourage more investment and entrepreneurship. Such changes can be made revenue neutral by eliminating deductions, loopholes and other tax preferences. This would apply to corporations as well as individuals.
Establish a new low percentage (1% – 2%) wealth tax with a relatively high personal exemption ($5 million – $10 million). This would bring in approximately $200 billion per year to be used for reducing the deficit. Equally as important it would be a visible sign that the wealthy are making a significant contribution towards solving our fiscal problem. This will make it more acceptable to lower marginal tax rates on income in order to boost economic growth.
Fiscal conservatives often oppose any increase in tax revenue because, they think, it is likely to be used for new spending rather than for lowering the deficit. One way to overcome this concern is to pass a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution. This would make it much harder to increase spending. The problem is that it will be very hard for Congress to pass such an amendment and have it ratified by ¾ of the states.
But something has to be done. The longer we wait and the more debt we build up, the more painful it will be to extract ourselves when the next crisis occurs as it surely will.
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!
As I reported in my last blog post a few days ago, wealth inequality in the United States and the rest of the developed world is growing rapidly and is likely to get much worse in the foreseeable future. This is happening because income from wealth, i.e. the return on investment, typically grows faster than wages and GDP. As income inequality also grows, and top wage earners have more and more money to invest, then the gap between investment income and wage income will become even wider. There is nothing wrong with this and the more money that is reinvested in our economy, the faster it will grow and the more jobs that will be created.
At the same time that huge new wealth is being created we have an archaic tax system in the U.S. which is not only incredibly complicated and inefficient, but also discourages investment because the top individual and corporate rates are so high. And it doesn’t collect enough tax to pay our bills. We have huge deficits already and the CBO says that they’ll just keep getting worse.
Making government operate more efficiently with less spending is highly desirable but will only go so far. Every government program has a constituency of supporters who complain when their own program is targeted for cuts. And the biggest and most expensive, the entitlement programs of Social Security and Medicare, have the largest constituency of all, over 50 million retirees at the present time and growing rapidly as the baby boomers retire at the rate of 10,000 per day.
This huge crunch can only be resolved by fundamental tax reform. Several different ways have been proposed to do this:
Reform the current income tax system by broadening the base, lowering rates and eliminating deductions and loopholes to pay for it. The problem with this approach is that no one wants to give up their own deductions (for mortgage interest, charitable contributions, employer provided healthcare, state and municipal taxes, etc.)
Introduce a consumption tax such as the Graetz Plan which I described in my January 7, 2014 post. It would establish a 14% Value Added Tax on consumption, supplemented by a lower but still progressive tax on incomes over $100,000. It would avoid being regressive on low wage workers by using an Earned Income Tax Credit to offset the Payroll Tax.
Introduce a wealth tax.
Sorry, I’m over my (self-imposed) word limit already. I’ll describe a possible wealth tax in my next post!