INEQUALITY IS NOT INEVITABLE

ABSTRACT: “Inequality is not inevitable” is the title of a recent piece in the New York Times by Joseph Stiglitz. Our current levels of inequality – and the undermining of the middle class – are the result of policies and politics, not a fundamental feature of capitalism. One example is the recent bailout of the large bank and financial corporations with hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ dollars while only a pittance went to homeowners and other victims of these corporations’ predatory lending.

Our campaign finance laws allow economic inequality to lead to political inequality by letting the wealthy buy political influence. And political inequality increases economic inequality in a vicious cycle: politicians increase corporate welfare and give the rich tax cuts while cutting support for middle class workers and the poor.

True economic success is measured by how well the typical citizen is doing, especially in America, which claims to be the bastion of equal opportunity. But here in the US, the typical worker’s income is lower today than it was 25 years ago.

There are policy solutions that will simultaneously strengthen our economy, address the federal government’s budget deficit and debt issues, tackle our infrastructure needs, and reduce inequality. Tax reform is a core ingredient of these policy changes. (See details below.) It and other policies that can and should be changed will reduce inequality, improve our economy, and address other important issues.

FULL POST: “Inequality is not inevitable” is the title of a recent piece in the New York Times by Joseph Stiglitz, [1] a Nobel prize-winning economist. It is the final piece of a New York Times series on inequality entitled “The Great Divide.” [2] The series presents a wide range of examples that demonstrate that our current levels of inequality – and the undermining of the middle class – are the result of policies and politics, not a fundamental feature of capitalism. Other countries’ economies are performing as well or better than ours with far greater equality.

Policies that have increased inequality and weakened the middle class include the recent bailout of the large bank and financial corporations with hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ dollars while only a pittance went to homeowners and other victims of these corporations’ predatory lending. More help for homeowners and the unemployed would have helped the economy recover more quickly and vigorously. We also allow corporate monopolies and near monopolies to exist and make huge profits while they ship jobs and profits overseas, avoiding paying US taxes.

Our campaign finance laws allow economic inequality to lead to political inequality by letting the wealthy buy political influence. And political inequality increases economic inequality in a vicious cycle: politicians increase corporate welfare and give the rich tax cuts while cutting support for middle class workers and the poor. The wealthy corporations and individuals increase their wealth, not by working harder or being smarter, but by manipulating the rules of our economic and political systems. As a result, for example, corporate income taxes have declined as a portion of the federal government’s revenue from 39.8% in 1943 to 9.9% in 2012. Furthermore, Wall St. corporations and executives were not brought to justice for their criminal behavior that led to the economic collapse, or even for their abuse of our legal system in foreclosing on and evicting homeowners, inappropriately, fraudulently, and sometimes in total error.

True economic success is measured by how well the typical citizen is doing, especially in America, which claims to be the bastion of equal opportunity. But here in the US, the typical worker’s income is lower today than it was 25 years ago. And the life prospects of our children are determined more by the income and education of their parents than they used to be, and more than they are in other advanced countries. The tremendous growth in income and wealth of the top 1% in the US has not trickled down, it has evaporated, often in Caribbean and other tax havens. [3] There is compelling evidence that the current level of inequality in the US is weakening our economy and our social cohesion.

There are policy solutions that will simultaneously strengthen our economy, address the federal government’s budget deficit and debt issues, tackle our infrastructure needs, and reduce inequality. We can improve economic growth, promote economic efficiency, and reduce unemployment through changes in our tax system. Tax reform is a core ingredient of the policy changes needed to reduce inequality. Such tax reform includes: [4]

  • Reducing incentives and opportunities for corporations and wealthy individuals to avoid paying taxes
  • Increasing the top marginal income tax rates and reducing preferential treatment of unearned income, such as capital gains and dividends
  • Reforming corporate taxation to incentivize investing in the US (rather than overseas) and to close loopholes that are essentially corporate welfare
  • Taxing too-big-too-fail financial institutions to create a rescue fund (for future, probably inevitable bailouts) and to provide a disincentive for unlimited corporate growth and for speculative, highly leveraged financial activities that increase the likelihood of a bailout
  • Implementing a financial transaction tax to provide a disincentive for unproductive and sometimes harmful financial speculation and activity, such as high volume, high speed, computer-driven trading
  • Reforming the estate and inheritance tax to improve economic efficiency and fairness
  • Taxing pollution and other negative environmental effects
  • Ensuring the government gets full value when it sells public assets, such as natural resources like oil and gas

Tax reform is not an end in itself. The objective is to create a more efficient tax system, while simultaneously producing higher employment and economic growth, reducing inequality and environmental harm, and enhancing the efficiency of our economy.

Inequality is the result of tax and other policies that can and should be changed. Moreover, well-designed changes that address inequality will simultaneously improve our economy and address other important issues.

[1]       Stiglitz, J., 6/29/14, “Inequality is not inevitable,” The New York Times

[2]       See a listing and abstracts of The Great Divide series at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/category/the-great-divide/?module=BlogCategory&version=Blog Post&action=Click&contentCollection=Opinion&pgtype=Blogs&region=Header

[3]       Stiglitz, J. 6/29/14, see above

[4]       Stiglitz, J., 5/28/14, “Reforming taxation to promote growth and equity,” The Roosevelt Institute, http://rooseveltinstitute.org/sites/all/files/Stiglitz_Reforming_Taxation_White_Paper_Roosevelt_Institute.pdf

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