Most people agree that income inequality and wealth inequality are increasing in the U.S. Likewise anyone who’s paying attention is aware of our slow rate of GDP growth, averaging 2.2% per year, since the end of the recession five years ago. Is there a connection between inequality and slow growth? Maybe! First of all, it is important to note that income inequality in the past 30 years has been greatly offset by federal taxes and transfer programs as shown in the October 2011 chart (above) from the Congressional Budget Office. Secondly, the Economist discusses this situation in the article “Inequality v growth”. The economists Jonathan Ostry, Andrew Berg and Charalambos Tasangarides have shown (see above chart) that a large amount of redistribution affects growth more negatively than a smaller amount of redistribution.
Economists generally agree that the recovery has been slowed down by a lack of demand by consumers for more goods. So the recovery should speed up as less affluent consumers feel secure enough to spend more money. Two things, to start with, can make this happen. One is a restoration of the housing market so that homeowners have more equity (which can be borrowed and spent). Another way to accomplish this is with government redistribution programs, such as food stamps and Medicaid, for low income people.
But there is an even better way to put money in the hands of people who will spend it, and at no cost to the government. I am talking about broad based tax reform, whereby tax rates are lowered for everyone, offset by closing tax loopholes and shrinking deductions, which primarily benefit the wealthy. For the two-thirds of taxpayers who do not itemize deductions, and who tend to be the less affluent, such a tax rate cut will put money in their pockets, most of which they will spend.
Such a tax program as this would be a direct shift of resources from the wealthy to everyone else, thereby lessening inequality. It would stimulate the economy, creating millions of new and higher paying jobs, and thereby increasing tax revenue and lowering the deficit. Win, win, win, win!
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.
This morning’s Wall Street Journal has a book review by the New York fund manager, Daniel Shuchman, “Thomas Piketty Revives Karl Marx for the 21st Century” of Thomas Piketty’s new book “Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century.” As I recently discussed, Piketty makes the simple observation that income from wealth, i.e. investment income, grows faster than income from wages or GDP. He then provides a large quantity of data showing how this has played out since the end of WWII. He plausibly predicts that the value of private capital as a percentage of national income will continue to grow indefinitely into the future. This much is straightforward. The question is how we should react to a steadily increasing and very large concentration of wealth in the hands of a small percentage of people. Mr. Piketty’s own idea is, for example, to establish an 80% tax rate on incomes starting at “$500,000 or $1,000,000” in order “to put an end to such incomes.” Mr. Shuchman attempts to discredit Mr. Piketty by focusing in on such socialistic views for dealing with the problem rather than discussing the intrinsic merit of Piketty’s basic thesis about the buildup of great wealth in the first place.
My own view is that Mr. Piketty has clearly identified a weakness of capitalism and that it behooves supporters of free markets and private initiative to address this problem in a constructive way, for example, as follows.
We need fundamental broad-based tax reform, i.e. lower tax rates in exchange for closing loop-holes and lowering deductions, in order to boost the economy and create more jobs. As part of a major tax overhaul, we could also establish a relatively small wealth tax, of about 1% or 2%, on assets over $10,000,000, which would raise as much as $200 billion per year. This much money could be used to begin a large scale program of infrastructure renewal as well as leaving a lot left over to make significant payments on reducing our annual deficit.
Such an overall plan would address both income inequality and wealth inequality in a highly visible manner while simultaneously helping our economy.
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.
“I agree with you that something must be done now. The trick is what will work the best in the short term to trigger the agreement between the fiscal conservatives and the modern liberals to cut costs and balance the budget that we both agree on. We can agree to disagree on the solution details but I hope you are successful in achieving the short term goals you are working tirelessly on.
Just as big a question is what will work the best in the long run to prevent it from happening again. I will continue to work on changing the intellectual environment that I see as a precondition to solidifying your short-term gains and preventing a re-occurrence.” These are the words of my Omaha libertarian friend, David Demarest, with whom I have an ongoing dialogue. He wants to cut back and limit the scope of government. I’m willing to have a more expansive government as long as we’re willing to pay for it.
The secret to solving many of our current problems (stagnant economy, high unemployment, massive debt, increasing inequality) is to grow our economy faster. The best way to accomplish this is by boosting investment and entrepreneurship with broad-based tax reform, by lowering tax rates for both individuals and corporations, paid for by eliminating deductions and closing loopholes.
But some people think that lowering tax rates means lower taxes on the rich. To counteract this perception, and at the same time to raise additional tax revenue to lower the deficit, I propose to levy a new wealth tax of 1% of assets with an exemption of $10 million per person to make sure that the tax only applies to the “truly wealthy.”
I believe that a program along these lines is the best way to get our economy back on track. But, at the same time we need to figure out how to avoid falling back into another slow growth, high debt trap anytime soon.
A good way to achieve long run protection is with a balanced budget amendment. It would need to be flexible, allowing for emergencies, and also phased in over several years to allow citizens and legislators time to make the necessary adjustments to spending and taxes.
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!