Plutocrats would do themselves a favor by being taxed at higher rates
Topics: Politics News
By Yves Smith
One of the major fights in the debt ceiling battle is how much top earners should contribute to efforts to close deficits. Australian economist John Quiggin makes an eloquent case as to why they need to pony up:
My analysis is quite simple and follows the apocryphal statement attributed to Willie Sutton. 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.
And the fares of the have versus the have-nots continue to diverge. A new survey found that 64% of the public doesn’t have enough funds on hand to cope with a $1000 emergency. Wages are falling for 90% of the population. And disabuse yourself of the idea that the rich might decide to bestow their largesse on the rest of us. Various studies have found that upper class individuals are less empathetic and altruistic than lower status individuals.
This outcome is not accidental. Taxes on top earners are the lowest in three generations. Yet their complaints about the prospect of an increase to a level that is still awfully low by recent historical standards is remarkable.
Given that this rise in wealth has been accompanied by an increase in the power of those at the top, is there any hope for achieving a more just society? Bizarrely, the self interest of the upper crust argues in favor of it. Profoundly unequal societies are bad for everyone, including the rich.
First, numerous studies have ascertained that more money does not make people happier beyond a threshold level that is not all that high. Once people have enough to pay for a reasonable level of expenses and build up a safety buffer, more money does not produce more happiness.
But even more important is that high levels of income inequality exert a toll on all, particularly on health. Would you trade a shorter lifespan for a much higher level of wealth? Most people would say no, yet that is precisely the effect that the redesigning of economic arrangements to serve the needs at the very top is producing. Highly unequal societies are unhealthy for their members, even members of the highest strata. Not only do these societies score worse on all sorts of indicators of social well-being, but they exert a toll even on the rich. Not only do the plutocrats have less fun, but a number of studies have found that income inequality lowers the life expectancy even of the rich. As Micheal Prowse explained in the Financial Times:
Those who would deny a link between health and inequality must first grapple with the following paradox. There is a strong relationship between income and health within countries. In any nation you will find that people on high incomes tend to live longer and have fewer chronic illnesses than people on low incomes.
Yet, if you look for differences between countries, the relationship between income and health largely disintegrates. Rich Americans, for instance, are healthier on average than poor Americans, as measured by life expectancy. But, although the US is a much richer country than, say, Greece, Americans on average have a lower life expectancy than Greeks. More income, it seems, gives you a health advantage with respect to your fellow citizens, but not with respect to people living in other countries….
Once a floor standard of living is attained, people tend to be healthier when three conditions hold: they are valued and respected by others; they feel ‘in control’ in their work and home lives; and they enjoy a dense network of social contacts. Economically unequal societies tend to do poorly in all three respects: they tend to be characterised by big status differences, by big differences in people’s sense of control and by low levels of civic participation….
Unequal societies, in other words, will remain unhealthy societies – and also unhappy societies – no matter how wealthy they become. Their advocates – those who see no reason whatever to curb ever-widening income differentials – have a lot of explaining to do.
It’s easy to see how “big status differences” alone have an impact. The wider income differentials are, the less people mix across income lines, and the more opportunties there are for stratification within income groups. Thus a decline in income can easily put one in the position of suddenly not being able to participate fully or at all in one’s former social cohort (what do you give up, the country club membership? the kids’ private schools? the charities on which you give enough to be on special committees?). And lose enough of these activities that have a steep cost of entry but are part of your social life, and you lose a lot of your supposed friends. Making new friends over the age of 35 is not easy.
So a perceived threat to one’s income is much more serious business to the well-off than it might seem to those on the other side of the looking glass. Loss of social position is a fraught business indeed.
Robert Frank has also pointed out that the issue is relative status. Changes that hit all members of a particular cohort more or less the same way does not disrupt the existing social order:
As psychologists have long known, individuals typically find belt-tightening painful. But recent psychological research suggests that if all in that group spent less in unison, their perceptions of their standard of living would remain essentially unchanged….
With less after-tax income, top earners also wouldn’t be able to spend as much on cars or their children’s weddings and coming-of-age parties. But why did they feel compelled to spend so much in the first place? In most cases, they simply wanted a car that felt spirited, or a celebration that seemed special. But concepts like “spirited” and “special” are inescapably relative: when others in your circle spend a lot, you must spend accordingly or else live with the disappointment that results from unmet expectations.
And the costs of living in more unequal societies extend beyond health, although that impact is particularly dramatic. If you look at broader indicators of social well being, you see the same finding: greater income inequality is associated with worse outcomes. From a presentation by Kate Pickett, Senior lecturer at the University of York and author of The Spirit Level, at the INET conference in 2010:
You might argue: Why do these results matter to rich people, who can live in gated compounds? If you’ve visited some rich areas in Latin America, particularly when times generally are bad, marksmen on the roofs of houses are a norm. Living in fear of your physical safety is not a pretty existence.
Japan, which made a conscious decision to impose the costs of its post bubble hangover on all members of society to preserve stability, has gotten through its lost two decades with remarkable grace. The US seems to be implementing the polar opposite playbook, and there are good reasons to think the outcome of this experiment will be ugly indeed.
More Related Stories
- 6 things you need to know about dark money groups
- Jester clowns Westboro Baptist Church
- GOP: Party of crybabies
- Developers evict historic women's shelter to build luxury hotel
- Guantánamo prisoner on hunger strike cries for help on Twitter
- 3 possible solutions to international tax avoidance
- “I just want the U.S. to send my father home”
- Army weapons engineer tied to white nationalist organizations
- Ted Cruz against the world
- David Vitter's hypocritical, punitive, horrible new amendment
- Louie Gohmert: Women should be forced to carry nonviable pregnancies to term
- Could hackers destroy the U.S. power grid?
- Democrats may be even worse than Republicans at regulating Wall Street
- Eric Holder versus journalism
- A progressive defense of drones
- There's no substitute for government disaster relief
- Holder signed off on search warrant for reporter
- Mississippi could begin prosecuting women for miscarriages
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- Closing Gitmo is not enough
- Murkowski: Palin too disengaged to run for Senate
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11