Taxing the Wealthy and the Art of Sophistry

BY JOHN MILLER | November/December 2016

This article is from Dollars & Sense: Real World Economics, available at

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If you’re for cutting taxes on the wealthy, we’re for you. If you’re for increasing taxes on the wealthy, we’re against you. That’s “the art of growth.” Wall Street Journal style.

Well, Picassos they’re not, at least as far as the art of growth goes. The Wall Street Journal editors are pushing positions that find little support even among mainstream economists, hardly the sworn enemies of the rich. A 65% tax on the estates of the super-rich is not going to kill economic growth, and lowering taxes on the incomes of the super-rich is not going to breathe new life into today’s sluggish economy.

What is indisputable is that a plan like Trump’s will reduce the progressiveness of the federal income tax, making today’s ever-worsening inequality yet worse. A plan like Clinton’s would increase the progressiveness of the federal income tax, reducing inequality without threatening economic growth. To insist otherwise is the art of sophistry, not the art of growth.

To see why, let’s take a closer look at the Trump and Clinton tax proposals, what the evidence actually says about how taxing the wealthy affects economic growth, and what economists actually have to say about it.

Taxes and the Historical Record

The Trump tax plan would lower the top income tax bracket from 39.6% to 33%, eliminate the alternative minimum tax (which since 1969 has collected income taxes from high-income taxpayers who otherwise would have paid very little in income tax), cut the corporate income tax by more than half, and do away with the estate tax. With those and other pro-rich measures, close to half of the benefits of the Trump tax cut—some 44%—would go to the richest 1%, according to the analysis of Citizens for Tax Justice, showering an average tax cut of $88,410 to these taxpayers all with adjusted gross incomes in excess of $428,713 in 2013. The Trump proposal would cut tax revenues by $6.2 trillion over the next decade, more than twice as much as the Reagan tax cut in the 1980s and the Bush tax cuts of the 2000s (both corrected for inflation).

The Clinton tax proposal would increase tax revenues by $1.4 trillion over the next decade, with those additional revenues coming nearly exclusively from taxes on the well-to-do. Clinton proposes to levy a “fair share” surcharge of four percentage points on taxpayers with over $5 million of adjusted gross income, pushing their marginal tax rate up from 39.6% to 43.6%. She would also replace the alternative minimum tax with the Buffett rule, which would require all taxpayers with adjusted gross income in excess of $1 million to pay no less than a 30% of their total income in federal income taxes. Her plan would also raise taxes on capital gains from assets held less than six years, and boost the top tax rate on estates over $500 million (paid by just two in every 10,000 taxpayers) from 40% to 65%. Altogether, 77.8% of the burden of the Clinton tax increases would fall on the richest 1% of taxpayers (and 91.6% on the richest 10% of taxpayers), says the Tax Policy Center.

The tax rates on the wealthy proposed by the two presidential candidates are not outside the range of the historical record of the United States, despite the editors’ muttering about Clinton’s socialist death tax and the enormity of Trump’s tax cut. Given the fervor with which the editors preach that lowering taxes on the wealthy is the key to our economic salvation, you might be surprised to learn that faster economic growth rates and lower taxes on the wealthy are not closely correlated.

That much is clear even at first glance. The U.S. economy grew most quickly when taxes on the wealthy were at their highest, not their lowest. During the 1960s, the only decade in which the annual growth rate averaged 4%, the top estate tax rate was 77% throughout the decade and the top income tax rate was as a high as 91% and never lower than 70%. For instance, in 1960 a 91% marginal tax rate was levied on married families with income above $400,000 (or $3.25 million in 2016) and only on their income above $400,000. In addition, during the four decades that the U.S. economy expanded 3% a year, the top tax rates on the wealthy varied widely. During the 1980s, the top income tax rate was as low as 28% and the top estate tax rate was just 55%. In the 1950s those rates were 91% and 77%. But the economy grew an identical 3.09% a year during both decades. And over the last fifteen years, when top tax rates have been quite low by historical standards, the U.S. economy has grown more slowly than during any of the five decades from 1950 to 2000.

International comparisons also fail to show that cutting taxes on the wealthy is the key to increasing economic growth. For instance, when economists Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Stefanie Stantcheva compared economic growth rates and changes in the top marginal income tax rate of 18 OECD countries during the 1960-2010 time period, they found that, “cuts in top tax rates do not lead to higher economic growth.” The United States, for instance, cut its top rate by over 40 percentage points during that period, and its per capita income grew just over 2% annually. In Germany and Denmark, which barely changed their top income tax rates, growth rates were also just over 2% per year.

Blowing Up Trickle Down

In their recent study of the “Effects of Income Tax Changes on Economic Growth,” Brookings Institution economists William Gale and Andrew Samwick conclude that, “it is by no means obvious that tax rate cuts will ultimately lead to a larger economy.”

They explain their results this way. Tax cuts offer the potential to raise economic growth. With lower taxes workers keep more of what they earn in wages, savers get more after taxes, and investors make more money on their investments after taxes. In this way, tax cuts provide an incentive to work more, save more out of income, and to throw more money into investments. Economists call this the “substitution effect” because, for instance, as after tax wages (the reward for work) go up, workers will substitute income (from working more) for leisure time. But at the same time, tax cuts dull the incentive to work, save, and invest by reducing the need to engage in productive economic activity. With lower taxes, workers can earn the same income working fewer hours, save as much as before while consuming more, and investors can make as much money as before while investing less. Economists call this the “income effect” because, for instance, with higher after-tax wages workers can afford to work fewer hours and take more time off (leisure) without a loss of income. For Gale and Samwick this leaves the net effect of income tax cuts on growth “theoretically uncertain.”

Economist Jane Gravelle with the non-partisan Congressional Research Service finds that the effect of estate taxes on the size of economy and economic growth is likewise uncertain. On the one hand, a lower estate tax makes it cheaper for people to leave money to their heirs. That might encourage them to work harder and save more. On the other hand, a lower estate tax allows people to make the same after-tax bequest with a smaller amount of savings, which might persuade them to work and save less. On top of that, to the extent that a lower estate tax increases the size of bequests after taxes, recipients may work and save less. All of this convinces Gravelle that the effect of changes in the estate tax on savings and output “would be negligible.”

When Congressional Research Service economist Thomas Hungerford examined these issues, he found that, “The top tax rates appear to have little or no relation to the size of the economic pie, but there may be a relationship to how the economic pie is sliced.” Unlike the effect of cuts in the top tax rates on economic growth, there is good evidence that lower taxes on the rich and greater economic disparities go hand in hand. Using IRS data, Hungerford reports that the average tax paid by the top 0.1% of U.S. families fell to 25% in 2009, just half of the 50% they paid in 1945. At the same time their share of income more than doubled from 3.3% in 1945 to 7.0% in 2009 in the midst of the Great Recession, before reaching 7.9% in 2015.

Clinton’s tax proposal would combat rising inequality by increasing taxes on those at the top. She doesn’t offer tax cuts for those with modest incomes. But she does pledge to improve their economic position by using the revenues from her tax increases to pay for affordable childcare (including doubling the child tax credit), paid family leave, debt-free college, and infrastructure spending.

The Trump tax plan, on the other hand, would not just be a “big league” (as he says) reduction of the tax burden of the rich. It would also strip the government budget of 15% of its revenues over the next decade. On top of that, the Trump proposal would raise the taxes of 7.8 million families with children by replacing personal exemptions with a standard deduction penalizing families with three or more children, repealing the head-of-household filing status that had reduced the taxes of single parents, and raising the bottom tax bracket from 10% to 12%. Hardest hit would be single parents with school-age children and no child care costs, some with as little as $16,000 of income.

How to Slice the Economic Pie

The real art of growth is in figuring out how to expand the economic pie and at the same time make the slices more equal. This can be done, but only if we reject the art of sophistry practiced by the Wall Street Journal editors and parroted by Trump and his ilk.

The economic evidence is clear. Reducing the tax burden on those with the largest slices hasn’t made the economic pie any bigger. When that message trickles down, we all will be better off.

is a professor of economics at Wheaton College and a member of the Dollars & Sense collective.

“The Distributional and Revenue Impact of Donald Trump’s Revised Tax Plan,” Citizens for Tax Justice, Sept. 9, 2016; Jim Nunns, Len Burman, and Joe Rosenberg, “An Analysis of Donald Trump’s Revised Tax Plan,” Tax Policy Center, October 11, 2016; Richard Auxier, Len Burman, Jim Nunns, and Jeff Rohaly, “An Updated Analysis of Hillary Clinton’s Tax Proposals,” Tax Policy Center, Oct. 11, 2016; “Effects of Income Tax Changes on Economic Growth,” by William G. Gale and Andrew R. Samwick, Economic Studies at Brookings, Sept. 2014; Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Stefanie Stantcheva, “Optimal Taxation of Top Labor Incomes,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 17616, 2011; Thomas L. Hungerford, “Taxes and the Economy: An Economic Analysis of the Top Tax Rates Since 1945,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, Sept. 14, 2012; Jane G. Gravelle, “Economic Issues Surrounding the Estate and Gift Tax,” Congress Research Service Report for Congress, April 24, 2007; Lily L. Batcheider, “Families Facing Tax Increases Under Trump’s Latest Tax Plan,” Social Science Research Network, Sept. 24, 2016; Bureau of Economic Analysis; “Historical Highest Marginal Income Tax Rates,” Tax Policy Center; “A Historical Look at Estate and Gift Tax Rates,” CCH: A Wolters Kluwer Business.

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