Opinion | Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Tax Hike Idea Is Not About Soaking the Rich – By Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman – The New York Times

By Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman
Mr. Saez and Mr. Zucman are economics professors at the University of California, Berkeley,

Jan. 22, 2019,  515 c

Image: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in November. CreditCreditSarah Silbiger/The New York Times
“Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has kick-started a much-needed debate about taxes. But the debate, so far, has been misplaced. It’s obvious that the affluent — who’ve seen their earnings boom since 1980 while their taxes fell — can contribute more to the public coffers. And given the revenue needs of the country, it is necessary.

But that’s not the fundamental reason higher top marginal income tax rates are desirable. Their root justification is not about collecting revenue. It is about regulating inequality and the market economy. It is also about safeguarding democracy against oligarchy.

It has always been about that. Look at the history of the United States. From 1930 to 1980, the top marginal income tax rate averaged 78 percent; it exceeded 90 percent from 1951 to 1963. What’s important to realize is that these rates applied to extraordinarily high incomes only, the equivalent of more than several million dollars today. Only the ultrarich were subjected to them. In 1960, for example, the top marginal tax rate of 91 percent started biting above a threshold that was nearly 100 times the average national income per adult, the equivalent of $6.7 million in annual income today. The merely rich — the high-earning professionals, the medium-size company executives, people with incomes in the hundreds of thousands in today’s dollars — were taxed at marginal rates in a range of 25 percent to 50 percent, in line with what’s typical nowadays (for instance, in states like California and New York, including state income taxes).

By Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman
Mr. Saez and Mr. Zucman are economics professors at the University of California, Berkeley,

Jan. 22, 2019, 515 c
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in November.

Image
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in November. CreditCreditSarah Silbiger/The New York Times

“Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has kick-started a much-needed debate about taxes. But the debate, so far, has been misplaced. It’s obvious that the affluent — who’ve seen their earnings boom since 1980 while their taxes fell — can contribute more to the public coffers. And given the revenue needs of the country, it is necessary.

But that’s not the fundamental reason higher top marginal income tax rates are desirable. Their root justification is not about collecting revenue. It is about regulating inequality and the market economy. It is also about safeguarding democracy against oligarchy.

It has always been about that. Look at the history of the United States. From 1930 to 1980, the top marginal income tax rate averaged 78 percent; it exceeded 90 percent from 1951 to 1963. What’s important to realize is that these rates applied to extraordinarily high incomes only, the equivalent of more than several million dollars today. Only the ultrarich were subjected to them. In 1960, for example, the top marginal tax rate of 91 percent started biting above a threshold that was nearly 100 times the average national income per adult, the equivalent of $6.7 million in annual income today. The merely rich — the high-earning professionals, the medium-size company executives, people with incomes in the hundreds of thousands in today’s dollars — were taxed at marginal rates in a range of 25 percent to 50 percent, in line with what’s typical nowadays (for instance, in states like California and New York, including state income taxes).

That few people faced the 90 percent top tax rates was not a bug; it was the feature that caused sky-high incomes to largely disappear. The point of high top marginal income tax rates is to constrain the immoderate, and especially unmerited, accumulation of riches. From the 1930s to the 1980s, the United States came as close as any democratic country ever did to imposing a legal maximum income. The inequality of pretax income shrunk dramatically.”

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