Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tax Policy

From John Quiggin:

The wealth that has accrued to those in the top 1 per cent of the US income distribution is so massive that any serious policy program must begin by clawing it back.

If their 25 per cent, or the great bulk of it, is off-limits, then it’s impossible to see any good resolution of the current US crisis. It’s unsurprising that lots of voters are unwilling to pay higher taxes, even to prevent the complete collapse of public sector services. Median household income has been static or declining for the past decade, household wealth has fallen by something like 50 per cent (at least for ordinary households whose wealth, if they have any, is dominated by home equity) and the easy credit that made the whole process tolerable for decades has disappeared. In these circumstances, welshing on obligations to retired teachers, police officers and firefighters looks only fair.

In both policy and political terms, nothing can be achieved under these circumstances, except at the expense of the top 1 per cent. This is a contingent, but inescapable fact about massively unequal, and economically stagnant, societies like the US in 2010. By contrast, in a society like that of the 1950s and 1960s, where most people could plausibly regard themselves as middle class and where middle class incomes were steadily rising, the big questions could be put in terms of the mix of public goods and private income that was best for the representative middle class citizen. The question of how much (more) to tax the very rich was secondary – their share of national income was already at an all time low.

This is actually a very constructive addition to the discussion of how to finance government and society in general. When I was growing up, the general idea we had was that serious tax cuts had to focus on the middle class because that was where all of the money was. But 25% of the national income is a lot and it isn't clear that this type of extreme inequality is socially useful. Few people seem to suggest that we should impoverish the rich, but would it be a horrible world where the top 1% had 15% of the post-tax income?

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