Posts Tagged ‘taxes’

tax-plan

All eyes right now are on the U.S. presidential campaign (especially the narrowing gap between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump).

What that means is Americans’ attention is diverted away from other politics and policies, such as the House GOP’s tax plan—the so-called “Better Way”—which would overwhelmingly benefit the richest 1 percent. It would allow the tiny group at the top to keep, via tax cuts, more of the surplus they manage to capture.

The plan would reduce the top individual income tax rate to 33 percent, reduce the corporate rate to 20 percent, and cap at 25 percent the rate on profits of pass-through businesses (such as sole proprietorships and partnerships) that are taxed under the individual income tax. Individuals could deduct half of their capital gains, dividends, and interest, reducing the top rate on such income to 16.5 percent.

According to the Tax Policy Center,

Overall, the plan would cut the average tax bill in 2017 by $1,810, increasing after-tax income by 2.5 percent. Three-quarters of the tax cuts would benefit the top 1 percent of taxpayers and the highest-income taxpayers (0.1 percent of the population, or those with incomes over $3.7 million in 2015 dollars) would experience an average tax cut of about $1.3 million, 16.9 percent of after-tax income. Households in the middle fifth of the income distribution would receive an average tax cut of almost $260, or 0.5 percent of after-tax income, while the poorest fifth of households would see their taxes go down an average of about $50, or 0.4 percent of their after-tax income. In 2025, the top 1 percent of households would receive nearly 100 percent of the total tax reduction. Households in some upper-middle income groups would have tax increases on average, and households at other income levels would have smaller average cuts, relative to after-tax income, than in 2017.

And, since the plan would reduce total federal revenues (by $3.1 trillion over the first decade of implementation and by an additional $2.2 trillion in the second decade), it implies massive cuts to federal programs, many of which benefit working-class households, thus making the plan even more regressive.

The better way, it turns out, is just another version of conservative trickledown economics.

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You’d think a Harvard economics professor would be able to do better than invoke horizontal equity as the sole argument for reducing the U.S. inheritance tax.

But not Gregory Mankiw, who uses the silly parable of the Frugals and the Profligates to make his case for a low tax rate on the estates of the wealthiest 0.2 percent of Americans who actually owe any estate tax.*

I’ll leave it to readers to judge whether or not it’s worth spending the time to compose a column on a tax that affects such a tiny percentage of rich—very rich—American households. And then to argue not for raising the tax, but for lowering it.

Me, I want to raise a few, more general issues about how mainstream economists like Mankiw think about inheritance taxes.

First, Mankiw presents one principle—horizontal equity, the “equal treatment of equals”—and never even mentions the other major tax principle—vertical equity, the “unequal treatment of unequals,” the idea that people with higher incomes should pay more taxes. Certainly, on the vertical criterion, those who receive large inheritances (for doing nothing more than being born into and raised within the right family) should pay taxes at a much higher rate than those who do not.

Second, even the notion of horizontal equity—that equals must be treated fairly—depends on an assumption that we each have come fairly to where we now stand. If that principle is violated (as it often is, e.g., because an estate represents the accumulated wealth based on other people’s labor, their surplus labor), then we need to ask if there is even an a priori principle of horizontal equity. The alternative is to judge everyone’s entitlements and burdens, including those occasioned by large inheritances, according to a single theory of equity or justice.

Finally, and perhaps even more important, both the horizontal and vertical equity standards presume that tax justice can be achieved by minimizing the coercive relation between the citizen and the state, which is then counterposed to the freedom guaranteed by a system of voluntary exchange. As Paolo Silvestri explains,

if the problem of the legitimacy of taxation as coercion is posed in terms of ‘voluntary vs coercion’, or freedom vs coercion, the maximum that one can ask it is to minimize coercion and maximize possibilities for voluntary exchanges, and / or minimize the role and size of government and leave as much room as possible to the private sector.

The alternative, of course, is to imagine a very different economic and political relationship, one in which both exchange and taxation—and thus notions of freedom and obligation—are understood in terms of an alternative logic. Consider, for example, the gift. If there is indeed something that the literature on gift economies has revealed it is the fact that social reciprocity—literally, creating and reproducing social relationships through gift exchange—configures the relationship between freedom and obligation in a manner quite different from that presumed by Mankiw and other mainstream economists.

What Silvestri makes clear is the circulation of the gift involves the free recognition (or non-recognition) of the obligation or debt occasioned by the gift, “in the sense that human freedom is asserted as such at the very moment in which it recognizes (or not) his debt.” Taxation, in particular, can be represented as an act of “giving back” to society, the recognition of a relationship of living together beyond the family—which, while never finally solving the tension between obligation and freedom, creates and recreates relations of mutual trust and living in common. It thus redefines the issue of equal or unequal return—the accounting framework of giving and taking embedded in notions of horizontal and vertical equity—in favor of asymmetry and an unending cycle of producing and resolving instances of justice and injustice across society.**

To which the only possible answer is further giving—and thus the freedom of those who have managed to amass great fortunes to comply with the obligation, after they have died, to pay taxes at a high rate based on large accumulations of the social surplus.

 

*There are many other facts about the estate tax Mankiw conveniently leaves out (according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities): the effective tax rate is much lower than the statutory rate, only a handful of family-owned farms and businesses owe any estate tax, the largest estates consist mostly of “unrealized” capital gains that have never been taxed, most other rich countries levy some form of estate tax, and the estate tax is the most progressive part of the U.S. tax code.

**My concern here is with the inheritance tax. Silvestri takes his argument in a related but different direction: “the European economic crisis, the restrictive fiscal policies and their social consequences [that] have done nothing but to sharpen the citizen’s distrust in such legal-political institutions, increased their resentments, and even undermined the very possibility of a democratic discussion on taxes.”

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Fred Block and Frances Fox Piven make a convincing case, from the Left, for a universal basic income.

In particular, they demonstrate an understanding that wage work has become one of the most elemental pillars of our civic religion,” past relief efforts (going back to Poor Laws) were mostly punitive, and employers will likely resist any attempt to undermine the so-called work ethic.

Not everyone will be on board to sever the age-old ties between poverty relief and tough demands on the poor. The basic-income approach will be resisted by employer interests because it violates that venerable principle, and will make workers more powerful over time by reducing their dependence on any one employer. A generous basic-income policy could, in other words, transform class relations.

There are however other obstacles, particularly problems of political language, that need to be overcome in any attempt to expand the “entitlement society” (a term that itself needs to be recaptured from the Right) through a universal basic income.

As I wrote back in 2012 (at the early stages of the previous presidential campaign), there are at least two issues we need to confront:

First, we need to contest the meaning of dependence. In particular, why is selling one’s ability to work for a wage or salary any less a form of dependence than receiving some form of government assistance? It certainly is a different kind of dependence—on employers rather than on one’s fellow citizens—and probably a form of dependence that is more arbitrary and capricious—since employers have the freedom to hire people when and where they want, while government assistance is governed by clear rules.

Second,. . .corporations have been successful in shifting the financing of government assistance programs from their surpluses to workers’ incomes. But the solution to the pressure on current workers’ standard of living is not to cut government programs but to change how they’re financed.

The campaign for a universal basic income will only be successful when we effectively contest the meaning of dependence (such that wage-labor is no longer viewed as a sign of independence) and change the way government programs are financed (such that the social surplus, not workers’ wages, can be utilized to satisfy social needs.)

Ultimately, then, a universal basic income points toward a new realm of freedom, including freedom from the need to work for the benefit of someone else and from the need to hand over a growing portion of one’s already-low individual income to finance a program that benefits society as a whole.

capital gains

Everyone (from President Obama to venture capitalist Alan Patricof) agrees the carried tax loophole—which allows investment fund managers to treat much of their income as capital gains (taxed at a top rate of 23.8 percent) rather than as income (for which the top rate is 39.6 percent)—should be closed.

But, as Michael Hiltzik [ht: ra] reminds us, it’s a tax break the super rich are willing to give up in order to keep the loophole they really value: the capital gains tax break itself.

Here are the numbers: The carried interest loophole produces an aggregate tax break of $2 billion to $20 billion a year, depending on how you reckon. That’s not peanuts, especially at the high end of the estimated range, but the advantage accrues mostly to real estate and private equity fund managers.

The preference rate for capital gains and dividends, however, costs the treasury an estimated $120 billion a year — anywhere from six to 60 times as much. That’s a commensurate gain for those earning a significant chunk of their income from capital gains, and they’re overwhelmingly members of the 1%. . .

In fact, in 2015, capital gains made up 40 percent of the incomes of the top 0.1 percent, and even more—53 percent—for those in the top 0.1 percent.

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That’s because the ownership of wealth, especially corporate equity, is so unequally distributed in the United States—and it has only gotten more unequal over the course of the past four decades. As Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman have shown, the average net wealth per U.S. family ($350,000 in 2012) masks considerable heterogeneity. Thus, for the bottom 90 percent, average wealth was $84 thousand, which corresponded to a share of total wealth of 22.8 percent; while for the top .01 percent (a total of 16 thousand families), average wealth was $371 million, for a total wealth share of 11.2 percent.

In fact, as the authors explain,

At the very top end of the distribution, wealth is now as unequally distributed as in the 1920s. In 2012, the top 0.01% wealth share (fortunes of more than $110 million dollars belonging to the richest 16,000 families) is 11.2%, as much as in 1916 and more than in 1929. Further down the ladder, top wealth shares, although rising fast, are still below their Roaring Twenties peaks. The top 0.1% share is still about 2.8 points lower in 2012 than in 1929 (22.0% vs. 24.8%), and the top 1% share about 9.6 points lower (41.8% vs. 50.6%). Wealth is getting more concentrated in the United States, but this phenomenon largely owes to the spectacular dynamics of fortunes of dozens and hundreds of million dollars, and much less to the growth in fortunes of a few million dollars. Inequality within rich families is increasing.

Moreover,

The long run dynamics of the very top group we consider—the top 0.01%—are particularly striking. The losses experienced by the wealthiest families from the late 1920s to the late 1970s were so large that in 1980, the average real wealth of top 0.01% families ($44 million in constant 2010 prices) was half its 1929 value ($87 million). It took almost 60 years for the average real wealth of the top 0.01% to recover its 1929 value—which it did in 1988. . .Financial regulation sharply limited the role of finance and the ability to concentrate wealth as in the Gilded age model of the financier-industrialist. Part of these policies were reversed in the 1980s, and we find that top 0.01% average wealth has been growing at a real rate of 7.8% per year since 1988. In 1978, top 0.01% wealth holders were 220 times richer than the average family. In 2012, they are 1,120 times richer.

Now that their fortunes have recovered—and continued to grow, based on corporate equities (in addition to fixed-income claims)—those at the very top of the wealth distribution in the United States aren’t interested in letting it go. Therefore, they’re willing to give up the small potatoes of the carried interest tax loophole in order to safeguard their much more important and lucrative capital gains tax break.

So, as Hiltzik explains,

keep this in mind the next time wealthy taxpayers ask to be patted on the head for advocating an end to the carried interest loophole: The real tax break is the one they’re not talking about.