A Tax System Stacked Against the 99 Percent
The American Overclass has already been highly successful at getting Congress to do their bidding. Joseph Stiglitz writes in the NY Times:
LEONA HELMSLEY, the hotel chain executive who was convicted of federal tax evasion in 1989, was notorious for, among other things, reportedly having said that “only the little people pay taxes.”
As a statement of principle, the quotation may well have earned Mrs. Helmsley, who died in 2007, the title Queen of Mean. But as a prediction about the fairness of American tax policy, Mrs. Helmsley’s remark might actually have been prescient.
Today, the deadline for filing individual income-tax returns, is a day when Americans would do well to pause and reflect on our tax system and the society it creates. No one enjoys paying taxes, and yet all but the extreme libertarians agree, as Oliver Wendell Holmes said, that taxes are the price we pay for civilized society. But in recent decades, the burden for paying that price has been distributed in increasingly unfair ways.
About 6 in 10 of us believe that the tax system is unfair — and they’re right: put simply, the very rich don’t pay their fair share. The richest 400 individual taxpayers, with an average income of more than $200 million, pay less than 20 percent of their income in taxes — far lower than mere millionaires, who pay about 25 percent of their income in taxes, and about the same as those earning a mere $200,000 to $500,000. And in 2009, 116 of the top 400 earners — almost a third — paid less than 15 percent of their income in taxes.
Conservatives like to point out that the richest Americans’ tax payments make up a large portion of total receipts. This is true, as well it should be in any tax system that is progressive — that is, a system that taxes the affluent at higher rates than those of modest means. It’s also true that as the wealthiest Americans’ incomes have skyrocketed in recent years, their total tax payments have grown. This would be so even if we had a single flat income-tax rate across the board.
What should shock and outrage us is that as the top 1 percent has grown extremely rich, the effective tax rates they pay have markedly decreased. Our tax system is much less progressive than it was for much of the 20th century. The top marginal income tax rate peaked at 94 percent during World War II and remained at 70 percent through the 1960s and 1970s; it is now 39.6 percent. Tax fairness has gotten much worse in the 30 years since the Reagan “revolution” of the 1980s.
Citizens for Tax Justice, an organization that advocates for a more progressive tax system, has estimated that, when federal, state and local taxes are taken into account, the top 1 percent paid only slightly more than 20 percent of all American taxes in 2010 — about the same as the share of income they took home, an outcome that is not progressive at all.
With such low effective tax rates — and, importantly, the low tax rate of 20 percent on income from capital gains — it’s not a huge surprise that the share of income going to the top 1 percent has doubled since 1979, and that the share going to the top 0.1 percent has almost tripled, according to the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez. Recall that the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans own about 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, and the picture becomes even more disturbing.
If these numbers still don’t impress you as being unfair, consider them in comparison with other wealthy countries.
The United States stands out among the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the world’s club of rich nations, for its low top marginal income tax rate. These low rates are not essential for growth — consider Germany, for instance, which has managed to maintain its status as a center of advanced manufacturing, even though its top income-tax rate exceeds America’s by a considerable margin. And in general, our top tax rate kicks in at much higher incomes. Denmark, for example, has a top tax rate of more than 60 percent, but that applies to anyone making more than $54,900. The top rate in the United States, 39.6 percent, doesn’t kick in until individual income reaches $400,000 (or $450,000 for a couple). Only three O.E.C.D. countries — South Korea, Canada and Spain — have higher thresholds.
Most of the Western world has experienced an increase in inequality in recent decades, though not as much as the United States has. But among most economists there is a general understanding that a country with excessive inequality can’t function well; many countries have used their tax codes to help “correct” the market’s distribution of wealth and income. The United States hasn’t — or at least not very much. Indeed, the low rates at the top serve to exacerbate and perpetuate the inequality — so much so that among the advanced industrial countries, America now has the highest income inequality and the least equality of opportunity. This is a gross inversion of America’s traditional meritocratic ideals — ideals that our leaders, across the spectrum, continue to profess.
Over the years, some of the wealthy have been enormously successful in getting special treatment, shifting an ever greater share of the burden of financing the country’s expenditures — defense, education, social programs — onto others. Ironically, this is especially true of some of our multinational corporations, which call on the federal government to negotiate favorable trade treaties that allow them easy entry into foreign markets and to defend their commercial interests around the world, but then use these foreign bases to avoid paying taxes.
General Electric has become . . .