When Ronald Reagan took office, affluent Americans paid a 70 percent tax rate on all income above $216,000. In the decades since, our country’s highest earners have seen their annual pay skyrocket, while the median household’s has barely budged. As a result, America’s 160,000 richest families now lay claim to 90 percent of its wealth. Studies suggest that this kind of inequality erodes social trust, abets plutocracy, and depresses economic growth. Politicians from both major parties routinely suggest that they see inequality as a major problem.
The case for trickle-down economics — which is to say, the idea that high top-marginal tax rates hurt economic growth — is much weaker now than it was in 1980. The U.S. saw faster GDP and productivity growth in the decades before Reagan’s tax cuts, than it did in the decades after. And during that latter era, the American economy grew at roughly the same rate as peer nations with higher top tax rates. A separate premise of the trickle-down theory held that raising taxes on the rich eventually costs the government revenue by discouraging work. The latest economic research suggests that this is true — but only if you raise the top tax rate higher than (approximately) 70 percent.
Meanwhile, French economist Thomas Piketty has demonstrated that high tax rates reduce pre-tax inequality – ostensibly, by discouraging rent-seeking among top executives, whose compensation is often determined less by productivity than a combination of social mores and their own audacity: CEOs are less likely to extract an extra $5 million from their companies (instead of allowing their firms to invest that sum in other purposes) if they know that Uncle Sam will collect 70 percent of their bonus. Thus, there is now some reason to believe that confiscatory top rates can reduce wage inequality, while producing some gains in economic efficiency.
All of which is to say: In 1980, taxing incomes above $216,000 (or $658,213 in today’s dollars) at 70 percent was considered a moderate, mainstream idea, even though wage inequality was much less severe, and supply-side economics had yet to be discredited.
This week, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told 60 Minutes that she believes the U.S. should consider taxing incomes above $10 million at a 70 percent rate. Specifically, the congresswoman suggested that taxing the rich at such a rate would be preferable to forgoing major investments in renewable energy, and other technologies necessary for averting catastrophic climate change. ...
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