The Need to Tax the Wealthy
The quest to increase taxes on the wealthy is not a gratuitous attack on upper income households; it is driven by the need to raise more revenue to run the government. While many deficit hawks been irresponsible in raising fears of an impending collapse of the American government, the projected deficits for years following the recovery are in fact larger than is desirable.
There are areas of American spending at the federal government level that could be reasonably cut, but even after we have zeroed out the "waste, fraud, and abuse" category of federal spending we will still likely need additional revenue of between 1-2%t of GDP to keep budget deficits in an acceptable range. That leaves a choice between increasing taxes on the wealthy or imposing more taxes on the middle class.
The vast majority of the income gains in the United States over the last three decades have gone to the richest 5% of the population, largely as a result of policies that were explicitly designed to redistribute income upwards. Therefore it is far more appropriate to tax the richest 5%t of families who have prospered than the broad middle class who have suffered.
Of course taxes can be designed in a better or worse manner. The best way to increase taxes on the wealthy, in addition to allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire, would be to apply a modest financial transactions tax (FTT).
There is a long history in both the United States and the rest of the world with FTT. Until 1964, the United States imposed a tax of 0.12% on new stock issues and 0.04% on stock trades. Britain still has a tax of 0.25% on each stock sale or purchase, raising five billion pounds a year. This would be equivalent to roughly $30 billion a year in the American economy.
Robert Pollin and I calculated that a scaled set of FTT on stock, futures, options and other financial instruments could raise approximately $150 billion a year. This would go far towards bringing the long-term budget deficit down to a manageable level.
A FTT would be hugely progressive. While many middle income families own stock, their holdings are dwarfed by the holdings of the wealthy. Furthermore, few middle income families are active traders. Their intention is to hold their stock to support their retirement or their kids' education, not to shuffle it around on a daily or hourly basis. Some mutual funds do engage in frequent trading. An FTT would encourage investors to move their money to funds that are less active traders, thereby allowing them to escape most of the impact of the FTT.
Most of the burden of the FTT will fall on wealthy individuals who are active traders and also on the financial industry itself. Either way, the tax will be overwhelmingly borne by the wealthy. By raising the cost of trading, the tax will discourage the trading that provides the revenue for the financial industry. A well-designed tax should also discourage the creation of exotic assets that may serve little useful purpose, since it could lead to the tax being paid multiple times. For example, the holder of an option on a stock would both pay the tax on the purchase and sale of the option and also on the purchase and sale of the stock itself, if the option was ever exercised.
While most taxes impose some economic cost in addition to the revenue raised, a FTT may actually increase economic efficiency. By discouraging financial transactions that are entirely rent-seeking in nature, a FTT will reduce the resources used up by the financial sector, without affecting at all its ability to serve the productive economy. The reduction in trading volume will of course reduce liquidity to some extent, but American financial markets will still be quite liquid. Even with a 0.25% tax on a stock sale or purchase, transaction costs will still only be raised back to their mid-80s levels. And, the United States had a large and very liquid stock market in the 80s.
There also is a powerful element of justice in imposing a FTT in the current situation. The main reason that the budget situation has deteriorated so much in the last two years has been the damage caused by the irresponsibility and greed of the financial industry. In this way, a FTT can be seen as sort of a user tax, where the industry is effectively forced to pay for some of the damage caused by its practices, just as we might like to tax the output of industries that pollute our air or water.
In short, there is a very good argument for increasing taxes on the wealthy given the current budget situation. The alternative is taxing those who are not wealthy. And, there is no better way to tax the wealthy than to tax their gambling in financial markets. A financial transactions tax will raise revenue at the same time that it makes the economy more productive. This is a genuine win-win situation.
© 2009 The Economist