Why the wealthy should willingly pay higher taxes.
Long ago Milton Friedman quipped, “Inflation is taxation without legislation.” His underlying observation: our real total tax burden is not limited to government tax collections; it is defined by the amount of government spending. Today, many people describe inflation as a “tax” on financial assets. But while inflation is a penalty and a burden, it is not a tax; at least not in the sense of funds that flow through the Treasury to support the operations of government. This leads to what should be an obvious choice: Is it better to have inflation? Or taxes?
At heart, habitual deficit spending and the inflation it fuels, is just an invidious form of cost shifting: part of the increasingly complex shell game of misdirection and outright deception our government plays as it selectively doles out services and tax preferences among its favored constituencies. Once again, I will quote Milton Friedman, “When a man spends someone else’s money on someone else, he doesn’t care how much he spends or what he spends it on. And that’s government for you.” The truth behind that observation is the source of much of the public’s anger at government – government has become a game of commerce in which our leadership willfully seeks to provide benefits to one party while they extract funding from another. While the public may be angry about it, we’re also complicit.
Government’s attempt to provide services funded by Other People’s Money, and the public’s persistent demands that they do so, sit at the root of our fiscal dysfunction and profligacy. The first step toward more responsible disbursement policies is to stop trying to make someone else pay our bills.
For roughly four decades now the battle to control spending has focused upon constricting tax revenues… and it has very conspicuously failed. Regardless of how logical it may have seemed; Starving the Beast has not worked. Part of the reason it hasn’t worked is that we pretend someone else is paying the bill: Tax Corporations! Tax the Rich! Tax Imports! Tax Consumption! Tax the Working Class! Tax Future Generations! Tax the Man Behind that Tree! Until and unless we impose more equitable revenue policies so that every citizen pays a fair share of the full burden of government spending, America will never marshal the collective will to make difficult decisions about spending priorities.
Today our leaders in Washington, responding to the demands of their constituents, shower the public with services while they play a game of musical chairs with the bill: shifting the costs, hiding the future obligations, and pretending the music is never going to stop. In response the public moans and groans, complains about irresponsible politicians… and reelects whoever delivers the most pork. As an alternative, imagine what would happen if, for one single election cycle, every American citizen received a tax bill for a fair allocation of the full government operations during the preceding year? We would have 100% turnover in the following election.
Decoupled from spending restraints, as it now is, Grover Norquist’s Anti-Tax Pledge is an inducement to theft. It is, not coincidentally, the driver for a massive wealth transfer from the working middle class to the privileged and lucky few who stand at the very top of the ladder of success. But that wealth transfer cannot continue; the structural imbalances created by preferential tax treatment of investment income and wealth have destabilized our productive economy and ultimately threaten those at the top as well as the bottom.
Thus, the question: Is there a grand bargain to be made, converting the burden of inflation which stealthfully erodes the value of financial assets, into a legitimate tax that funds the current operations of government? I believe there is. By restructuring our approach to taxing investments and wealth we could improve both the equity and efficiency of our tax policies.
Economists and central bankers keep trying to tell us that they have inflation under control. But anyone who’s been near a restaurant, grocery store or gas pump in the last three decades has objective cause to question the legitimacy of that claim. Admittedly, there’s been little recent wage inflation, at least among the working class. But the cost of living increases that weigh most heavily upon the poor and middle class are real and painful… and assuming continuation of current monetary policy, soon to get much, much worse. Inflation is an insidious burden upon investors and consumers alike. It subsidizes borrowers, encourages speculation and distorts investments.
The long term cost of inflation exceeds 2% per year. A 2% annual assessment on net assets, as a replacement for all the various inefficient and inconsistently applied mechanisms now used to tax investments, could balance the budget almost immediately. Assume a long term WACC of 8%, and a 2% asset tax is the equivalent to a 25% effective tax rate on the income potential of capital. Drop peak earned income tax rates to the same 25% and you will have balanced the budget while simultaneously equalizing effective tax rates between labor and capital. As a practical matter, it would also force the FED to put a floor under interest rates.
A balanced budget and more equitable tax distribution are both desirable objectives; but they pale beside the potential benefit of economic stimulus that could arise from removing subsidies to unproductive capital.
The Fed reports aggregate Household and Nonprofit asset holdings total approximately $72 Trillion. Reallocate 3% of that toward more productive activities and you will unleash $2.1 Trillion of private stimulus. If we level the playing field and stop subsidizing unproductive capital with preferential tax and monetary policies the natural response will be an aggressive reallocation of private capital that would provide far greater economic stimulus than anything government can afford to offer. The key to job growth is comprehensive structural reform of investment tax policies.
I offer this suggested revenue reform not as an alternative to government spending reductions, but because I perceive it is a prerequisite to imposing fiscal discipline upon our budget process. Unless and until we address the issue of equity (real and perceived) in our tax revenue policies we will be unable to marshal the collective public will to implement the important changes in entitlements and other program disbursements that we clearly and urgently need.
Those who believe we can find a path to fiscal solvency by cost-cutting alone, while continuing to down-stream tax burdens onto the working middle class, are deluding themselves. We already impose the penalty of high government spending via the burden of inflation. It seems intuitively obvious that converting that hidden and unproductive burden to real taxes that flow through the treasury would allow us to both a) distribute it more equitably and b) manage it more efficiently.
Reactions and rebuttals will be gratefully received, either publicly as comment to this post, or privately via the contact form nearby.
Author – A Citizen’s 2% Solution: How to Repeal Investment Income Taxes, Avoid a Value-Added Tax, and Still Balance the Budget. ISBN 978-0-9828328-0-6