Visions of a 70% Tax Rate

The new socialists need a refresher course in government math.

How much money would the government reap from a 70% tax rate on income above $10 million? Authors Kyle Pomerleau and Huaqun Li looked at two scenarios—one if the rate applied only to ordinary income like wages and interest, and another if it also applied to income from capital gains.

The best case scenario: a 70% rate would raise less than $300 billion in revenue over 10 years, which is less than half of the $700 billion that has been cited in press reports.

.. A 70% top rate would generate even less revenue if extended to capital gains. Investors only pay when they realize gains by selling assets, and they are especially sensitive to tax rates when deciding whether to sell. High rates can leave money locked into a current asset instead of flowing to the next good idea.

.. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez won’t admit it, but she and her socialist friends will eventually have to go where the real money is: The middle class. That means higher tax rates on even modest wage earners; taxes on retirement savings like 401(k)s or college savings accounts.

The Economics of Soaking the Rich

What does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez know about tax policy? A lot.

I have no idea how well Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will perform as a member of Congress. But her election is already serving a valuable purpose. You see, the mere thought of having a young, articulate, telegenic nonwhite woman serve is driving many on the right mad — and in their madness they’re inadvertently revealing their true selves.

Some of the revelations are cultural: The hysteria over a video of AOC dancing in college says volumes, not about her, but about the hysterics. But in some ways the more important revelations are intellectual: The right’s denunciation of AOC’s “insane” policy ideas serves as a very good reminder of who is actually insane.

The controversy of the moment involves AOC’s advocacy of a tax rate of 70-80 percent on very high incomes, which is obviously crazy, right? I mean, who thinks that makes sense? Only ignorant people like … um, Peter Diamond, Nobel laureate in economics and arguably the world’s leading expert on public finance (although Republicans blocked him from an appointment to the Federal Reserve Board with claims that he was unqualified. Really.) And it’s a policy nobody has every implemented, aside from … the United States, for 35 years after World War II — including the most successful period of economic growth in our history.

.. To be more specific, Diamond, in work with Emmanuel Saez — one of our leading experts on inequality — estimated the optimal top tax rate to be 73 percent. Some put it higher: Christina Romer, top macroeconomist and former head of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, estimates it at more than 80 percent.

Where do these numbers come from? Underlying the Diamond-Saez analysis are two propositions: Diminishing marginal utility and competitive markets.

Diminishing marginal utility is the common-sense notion that an extra dollar is worth a lot less in satisfaction to people with very high incomes than to those with low incomes. Give a family with an annual income of $20,000 an extra $1,000 and it will make a big difference to their lives. Give a guy who makes $1 million an extra thousand and he’ll barely notice it.

What this implies for economic policy is that we shouldn’t care what a policy does to the incomes of the very rich. A policy that makes the rich a bit poorer will affect only a handful of people, and will barely affect their life satisfaction, since they will still be able to buy whatever they want.

So why not tax them at 100 percent? The answer is that this would eliminate any incentive to do whatever it is they do to earn that much money, which would hurt the economy. In other words, tax policy toward the rich should have nothing to do with the interests of the rich, per se, but should only be concerned with how incentive effects change the behavior of the rich, and how this affects the rest of the population.

But here’s where competitive markets come in. In a perfectly competitive economy, with no monopoly power or other distortions — which is the kind of economy conservatives want us to believe we have — everyone gets paid his or her marginal product. That is, if you get paid $1000 an hour, it’s because each extra hour you work adds $1000 worth to the economy’s output.

Democrats are about to have to pay up

Before the ink was dry on our new tax bill, outraged blue states were screaming about the cap on the deductibility of state and local taxes. Their governments were also frantically seekingways around it, and small wonder. For decades, high-tax states with a lot of wealthy residents enjoyed a hefty subsidy from the rest of America.

.. Over the past few decades, the United States has undergone “the Big Sort,” the clumping of the electorate into demographically, professionally and politically homo­genous neighborhoods. Clinton voters have their Zip codes, and Trump voters theirs, and ever more rarely do the twain meet.

.. No, the money for American-style social democracy is all supposed to come from the rich. “I’ve been frustrated with liberals,” says Len Burman of the Tax Policy Center. “They really do just want to raise all the revenue from rich people, and they don’t understand that that really constrains what they can do in terms of financing the safety net.”

.. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will keep promising big new programs with laughably inadequate financing mechanisms
.. Blue-state professionals have enjoyed a disproportionate share of the prosperity gains over the past few decades; if they want a bigger government, they’ll have to give up those gains to fund it.

What’s Been Stopping the Left?

If progressive political parties had pursued a bolder agenda in the face of widening inequality and deepening economic anxiety, perhaps the rise of right-wing, nativist political movements might have been averted. So why didn’t they?

Why were democratic political systems not responsive early enough to the grievances that autocratic populists have successfully exploited – inequality and economic anxiety, decline of perceived social status, the chasm between elites and ordinary citizens? Had political parties, particularly of the center left, pursued a bolder agenda, perhaps the rise of right-wing, nativist political movements might have been averted.

.. Part of the reason for this, at least in the US, is that the Democratic Party’s embrace of identity politics (highlighting inclusiveness along lines of gender, race, and sexual orientation) and other socially liberal causes came at the expense of the bread-and-butter issues of incomes and jobs. As Robert Kuttner writes in a new book, the only thing missing from Hillary Clinton’s platform during the 2016 presidential election was social class.

.. One explanation is that the Democrats (and center-left parties in Western Europe) became too cozy with big finance and large corporations. Kuttner describes how Democratic Party leaders made an explicit decision to reach out to the financial sector following President Ronald Reagan’s electoral victories in the 1980s. Big banks became particularly influential not just through their financial clout, but also through their control of key policymaking positions in Democratic administrations. The economic policies of the 1990s might have taken a different path if Bill Clinton had listened more to his labor secretary, Robert Reich, an academic and progressive policy advocate, and less to his Treasury secretary, Robert Rubin, a former Goldman Sachs executive.

.. Until the late 1960s, the poor generally voted for parties of the left, while the wealthy voted for the right. Since then, left-wing parties have been increasingly captured by the well-educated elite, whom Piketty calls the “Brahmin Left,” to distinguish them from the “Merchant” class whose members still vote for right-wing parties. Piketty argues that this bifurcation of the elite has insulated the political system from redistributive demands.

The Brahmin Left is not friendly to redistribution, because it believes in meritocracy – a world in which effort gets rewarded and low incomes are more likely to be the result of insufficient effort than poor luck.

.. Ideas about how the world works have played a role among the non-elite as well, by dampening the demand for redistribution. Contrary to the implications of the Meltzer-Richard framework, ordinary American voters do not seem to be very interested in raising top marginal tax rates or in greater social transfers.

What explains this apparent paradox is these voters’ very low levels of trust in government’s ability to address inequality. One team of economists has found that respondents “primed” by references to lobbyists or the Wall Street bailout display significantly lower levels of support for anti-poverty policies.

.. Trust in government has generally been declining in the US since the 1960s

.. But a progressive left that is able to stand up to nativist politics will have to deliver a good story, in addition to good policies.