As the negotiations over the fiscal cliff continue, President Barack Obama has insisted on retaining the Bush tax cuts for the middle class, while letting the cuts for the wealthy lapse. Republicans have insisted that raising taxes on the rich would cost jobs – as many as 700,000, according to House Speaker John Boehner.Not only does coddling the rich not help the economy, it destroys it.
Obama, for his part, says that a tax increase would not cost jobs; that it would help the economy by reducing the deficit; and that it would be fairer than imposing new taxes on the middle class. “I’m not going to ask students and seniors and middle-class families to pay down the deficit while people like me who make more than $250,000 are not asked to pay a dime more in taxes,” he has declared.
Obama is right that a tax increase on the rich would not cost jobs; and he is certainly right that it would be fairer to tax the wealthy whose incomes have shot up, even during the downturn. And he is also correct that taxing the rich will actually benefit the economy--but not primarily for the reasons he cites. If the government extracts income from the wealthy, and then spends it on a $50 billion infrastructure program, an extension of unemployment insurance, and a Social Security payroll tax cut, as Obama has proposed, that will not only boost the recovery, but will also discourage the wealthy from rerouting their savings into the kind of speculative activity that helped create the Great Recession. A closer approximation of income equality is not only better for our souls—it’s also better for the economy. The question of fairness aside, the rich have been making relatively too much money for the country’s good.
Last September, the Congressional Research Service published a report countering Republican claims that lowering top tax rates would lead, or had led, to higher economic growth. “Changes over the past 65 years in the top marginal rate and the top capital gains tax rate do not appear correlated with economic growth,” the report concluded. Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell responded by having the report suppressed, but its findings were incontrovertible.
Regressive policies can also lead to financial crises. When firms suffer from global overcapacity or merely from domestic overproduction – when a glut arises of automobiles, ships, textiles semiconductors or fiber optic cable -- as happened in the late 1920s and again in the earlier part of the last decade, the wealthy, joined by corporate treasurers and bankers, have tended to pour their money into speculation rather than productive investment. The financial sector has become a casino for the rich, where they have gambled away funds that could have fueled the economy. So redistributing income through tax policy isn’t just fair; it is one way to began restructuring the economy to prevent future slowdowns and crashes.
Republican pleas to retain tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations and to eviscerate social programs do suggest a Romneyesque indifference to the 99 percent; they also presume an economy that no longer exists. “These incentives,” Livingston writes, “are merely invitations to inflate speculative bubbles.” Obama’s concession to arguments about the deficit, which come from Tea Party Republicans and business groups like Fix the Debt, is understandable, but unfortunate. There will come a time -- when unemployment dips, say, below six percent, and the countries’ businesses are at full capacity – when it will be important to reduce government deficits. And raising marginal taxes on the wealthy will be one way – along with other measures – to bring the deficit down.
But bringing down the deficit should not be the principal objective right now. What’s important is to continue the recovery from the Great Recession and to take measures to prevent future crises. Supply-siders were right about one thing: the best way to reduce the government deficit is to create economic growth. Obama’s proposal to raise taxes on the wealthy and to transfer those revenues to workers and the unemployed isn’t just the fair thing to do; it is exactly what’s right for the economy.
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