Inequality 7.

According to the CIA, income inequality in the United States now is more extreme than in Red China.[1] So what? What matters is that a “rising tide lifts all boats,” as JFK said when arguing for a tax cut. However, some economists argue that the evidence for this “true that” statement is sketchy (as young people used to say). President Clinton got Congress to raise the top tax rate from 31 percent to 39.6 percent and the economy boomed (admittedly with the “Tech Bubble” that collapsed after he left office); President George W. Bush got Congress to cut taxes on high earners to 35 percent, but the economy floundered (admittedly with the “Housing Bubble” that collapsed before he left office). In this analysis, what really matters is the amount of demand for goods in the economy. That is an argument for shifting resources to consumers.

The “Great Bull Market” of the Twenties (and other stuff that pundits don’t want to know about) led to the Great Depression. The Great Depression led to the New Deal and 20 years of Democratic dominance in Congress. The Depression discredited businessmen as prophets-of-the-New Era. The New Deal imposed all sorts of restrictions on business and raised taxes on the rich swells (who were in some vague way blamed for the Depression). By the 1950s the top rate on marginal incomes had risen to 91 percent, essentially a confiscatory tax on high incomes. Proponents of relative income equality point to this period as the ideal society because it coincided with the period of American economic ease. Good-paying working-class jobs allowed many people with only a high-school diploma to enter some version of the middle class.

However, the Great Depression ended in 1940. By the 1970s a whole new generation of businessmen had come on the scene. They were unburdened by the sins of their elders. They campaigned for a reduction in the punitive tax rates of the New Deal era. One can see this as Republicans responding to the Democratic strategy of “tax, spend, elect” with their own mantra of “tax-cut, spend, elect.” In theory, savings create investment capital and investment capital creates jobs. Therefore, the tax rate on capital gains fell to 70 percent in the 1970s, then to 50 percent in the first Reagan administration, and then to 28 percent in the second Reagan administration. Bill Clinton pushed for and won a reduction in the tax on capital gains from 28 percent to 20 percent. George W. Bush pushed for and won a reduction in the tax on capital gains from 20 percent to 15 percent. However, President Bush also pushed for massive cuts on taxes paid by lower income groups.

Two things resulted from the Bush tax cuts. First, the US government lost $400 billion a year in revenue. Of this lost revenue, “only” $87 billion came from people earning $250,000 a year or more. The other $313 billion came from people earning less than $250,000 a year.[2]

Second, taxation became much more progressive. While cutting taxes overall, Bush shifted the burden of taxation onto upper income earners. After the Bush tax cuts, the top 1 percent of income-earners now pays 40 percent of the income tax bill (and 21 percent of all taxes), while 47 percent of Americans now pay no income tax at all.[3] Despite his bitter condemnation of the Bush Administration on many scores, President Obama fought hard to confirm 98 percent of the cuts.

There are three observations worth making. One is that there are big long-term trends or swings in tax policy. The huge deficits looming as the “Baby Boom” ages may herald an end to low taxation for everyone.

A second is that President Obama has loudly condemned the plutocrats “who tanked the economy” in the financial crisis. How did Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Warren Buffett or the idiots who ran American car companies “tank the economy”? They didn’t. In fact, only about 14 percent of the richest Americans work in finance. Yet Gates, Jobs, Buffett and a lot of other ordinary, successful entrepreneurs were hammered by the Obama tax increases.[4] They have also been subject to his frequent dispensation of moral opprobrium.[5]

A third is that the Democrats need to define what they mean by “fair.” As in, “the rich should pay their fair share.” The rich are already carrying a disproportionate share of the fiscal weight while almost half of Americans pay nothing at all for the programs that benefit them. As Woody Guthrie might have said (had he been an entirely different person), “A poor man with a ballot-box can rob you just as easily as can a rich man with a pen.”

[1] “Taxing the rich,” The Week, 4 November 2011, p. 11.

[2] Can you impeach a former President?

[3] If “taxation without representation is tyranny,” then what is representation without taxation?

[4] Perhaps it is worth pointing out that of the “one percent,” about 16 percent are in medicine; about 12 percent are lawyers, and about 50 percent of the members of the House of Representatives and the Senate belong to the “one percent.”

[5] See: “Stuff my president says.”

Long Term Trends 3.

In 2010 and 2011, New York Times correspondent David Leonhardt turned to the problem of the long-term deficit.[1] In his analysis, that deficit arises from “the world’s highest health costs (by far), the world’s largest military (by far), a Social Security program built when most people died by 70—and to pay for it all, the lowest tax rates in decades.” By Leonhardt’s estimate, we will need about $500 billion a year in annual deficit reduction for the next decade. The money will have to come out of the three big spending categories and from more revenue.

The Medicare budget is the “linchpin of deficit reduction.”  Leonhardt recommended introducing incentives for people to choose cost-effective health-care. In practice, that will mean taxing employer-provided health-care benefits like the income they really are. The cost has risen massively since 1975. This encourages spending on health-care, rather than using the market to restrain price increases. Also, it is a benefit available only to people with employer-provided health-care. So, Americans get taxed differently for no good reason. This cost the government $264 billion in revenue in 2010. The federal tax subsidy created by sheltering them from taxes benefits drug makers, hospitals, and insurers.[2] He also wanted Medicare to refuse to pay for health care that cannot demonstrate that it makes people healthier.

Test social programs for actual effectiveness. Lots of them just exist, rather than achieving anything. Doubtless, many Republicans would say the same thing about the encrustations of regulations on business and industry that have grown up over the decades without ever being sunsetted.

Last, cut military spending by $100 billion a year to reverse the post-9/11 expansion.

Some leading conservatives—Mitch Daniels, Glen Hubbard, Gregory Mankiw–have endorsed means-testing Social Security and Medicare benefits. That is, shove more of the cost of their own care and retirement off on people who can afford to pay it.

Leonhardt also favored higher taxes on the middle and upper classes. The mortgage-interest deduction chiefly benefits people in the higher income brackets. Tax breaks for investors (IRA exclusion, $12.6 billion; lower tax rate for dividends, $31.1 billion; lower tax rate for capital gains, $36.3 billion; not taxing capital gains on items left to people in wills, $39.5 billion; and the 401(k) exclusion, $52.2 billion) total $171.70 billion in ‘lost” revenue.

Social Security and Medicare are essentially about paying for the past. (Often an improvident past.) Spending on education, research, and infrastructure are about paying for the future we desire. Leonhardt argues that we should actually be spending more on the future.

However, it isn’t clear that American democracy has the ability to confront powerful and well-entrenched interest groups. Reforming Medicare would involve taking money away from doctors, insurance companies, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies.  Stabilizing Social Security will involve raising the cap on withholding, so that upper income groups get gored and means-testing benefits at the cost of upper-income groups. Raising the taxes on the upper income groups to sustain benefits for lower income groups invited push-back in the past and will do so again. Cutting defense spending has never been as easy as increasing it, especially in the midst of dangers. The refusal of Democrats to define “fair share” makes rational discussion difficult.

Still, laying out the problems and some possible solutions makes it possible to think about the implications.

[1] David Leonhardt, “The Deficit: Real vs. Imagined,” NYT, 22 June 2011.

[2] David Leonhardt, “Health care’s obstacle: no will to cut,” by NYT, 10 March 2010; David Leonhardt, “The 3 Biggest Tax Breaks—and What They Cost Us,” NYT Magazine, 17 April 2011.