Wealthy individuals and corporations are buying and corrupting our candidates for public office and our political system like never before. An increasing proportion of the record amounts of campaign spending is coming from a small number of wealthy donors. This is damaging our democracy in multiple ways. (See previous posts here and here for some details.) Changes in our campaign finance system will help, such as increasing disclosure and limiting contribution amounts in exchange for matching public funds. (See this previous post for more details.)
(Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.)
However, as Louis Brandeis once said (prior to becoming a Supreme Court justice), “we can have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we can’t have both.” The current accumulation of huge wealth and hence political power in the hands of a few has indeed proved to be antithetical to democracy.
Economic inequality has grown because progressivity in the American tax system has largely disappeared. This is the result of two trends:
- Income tax rates at the federal and state levels have become less progressive, and
- More and more government revenues are coming from regressive taxes such as state and local sales taxes, taxes on gambling, and property taxes, as well as the federal payroll tax for Medicare and Social Security.
A progressive tax or tax system is based on the taxpayer’s ability to pay. It imposes lower taxes as a percentage of income on low-income earners than on those with higher incomes, i.e., the percentage of income paid as taxes progresses from lower to higher as income increases. A regressive tax or tax system does the reverse; those with lower incomes pay a higher percentage of their incomes in taxes.
Progressive taxes are viewed as fairer because low-income households need their income to pay for necessities, such as housing, food, clothing, utilities, and transportation. Higher income households have enough income to afford luxuries; they have more discretionary income, i.e., income they can spend at their discretion rather than having to use it to pay for necessities of life. Another way of thinking about this is that an extra dollar of income is much more valuable to a low-income household than to a high-income household. Therefore, it is fair to take a higher portion of that extra dollar of income from a high-income household in taxes.
Most of the taxes we pay have a flat tax rate, such as sales taxes and taxes on alcohol and tobacco. The effect of these taxes is regressive because low-income households spend a greater portion of their incomes on purchases that are subject to these taxes. Another example of a regressive tax is the revenue governments get from gambling. Low-income households spend a greater portion of their incomes on gambling, such as lottery tickets, and, therefore, this is a regressive revenue source for government and effectively a quite regressive tax.
The only significant progressive tax in the U.S. today is the income tax. The federal income tax has become much less progressive over the last 40 years and the portion of revenue that governments at all levels get from progressive taxes has declined significantly. As a result, our overall tax system has become much less progressive over the last 40 years and, at the state and local levels, generally quite regressive.
To have a progressive income tax, multiple brackets (i.e., income ranges) with higher tax rates for higher income brackets are necessary. The federal income tax has had as many as 50 brackets and until 1986 had always had at least 15. The highest tax rate was 94%, which, in 1944, was the marginal rate on income over $200,000 (equivalent to $2.5 million today). By the way, this tax rate was in place during one of the longest periods of economic growth in U.S. history.
The top tax rate was at least 70% until 1981; today it is 37%. President Reagan and other Republicans led the effort in the 1980s that reduced the top income tax rate from 70% to 28%. They also led the reduction of the number of tax brackets from 16 to two. Needless to say, the progressivity of the U.S. tax system plummeted and the path to great economic inequality was created. Today, there are seven tax brackets and a top rate of 37%.  So, some progressivity has been reintroduced but it’s still much, much less than it was prior to the 1980s. (The issue of taxes on capital gains, both realized and unrealized, is also important but a topic unto itself.)
The loss of progressivity has also occurred in state and local tax systems. Washington State has the country’s most regressive overall state tax system; state and local taxes consume 17.8% of family incomes for the 20% of families with the lowest incomes and only 3% of incomes for the 1% with the highest incomes. In Massachusetts, the richest 1% pay 6.5% of income in state and local taxes while the bottom 80% pay between 9% and 10% of income in state and local taxes.
Several proposals have been put forward to change the current regressivity of the U.S. tax system and to begin to change the high and growing level of economic inequality in the U.S., in terms of both income and wealth:
- Taxing wealth (in addition to income) is important because of the huge wealth that some individuals have accumulated over the last 40 years and because the wealthy are able to avoid income taxes by minimizing their incomes and living off their wealth. (See this previous post for more on the rationale for a wealth tax.) Two of the proposals for taxing wealth are:
- The Ultra-Millionaire Tax, proposed by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), would put a 2% tax on wealth between $50 million and $1 billion and a 4% tax on wealth over $1 billion. The wealth of 99.9% of American households is below $50 million, so they would pay no wealth tax under this proposal. 
- The OLIGARCH Act: The Oppose Limitless Inequality Growth and Restore Civil Harmony (OLIGARCH) Act, proposed by the group Patriotic Millionaires, would tax wealth in four brackets defined in relation to the median wealth of an American household, which is about $122,000. It would put a 2% tax on wealth between 1,000 and 10,000 times median wealth, or wealth of about $122 million to $1.2 billion. The tax rate would go up in 2% steps and top out at 8% on wealth over roughly $122 billion (one million times median wealth). (Note: There are two Americans with wealth of over $122 billion.) 
- For the federal income tax, the End the Bracket Racket Act, also put forth by Patriotic Millionaires, would add five new brackets with one establishing a 50% tax rate on income between $1 and $5 million and progressing to a 90% tax rate on income over $100 million. It would also incentivize states to raise revenue through income taxes by providing a federal tax credit for state and local income taxes (while eliminating the deduction for property, sales, and excise taxes). 
I encourage to you contact President Biden and your Representative and Senators in Congress. Ask them to support the establishment of a wealth tax as well as changes to the income tax to increase progressivity. These steps would begin to reduce economic inequality and, ultimately, the ability of the wealthy to corrupt our elections and democracy. You can email President Biden at http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments or you can call the White House comment line at 202-456-1111 or the switchboard at 202-456-1414. You can find contact information for your U.S. Representative at http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your U.S. Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.
 Patriotic Millionaires, retrieved 10/22/22, “End the Bracket Racket (EBR) Act,” (https://patrioticmillionaires.org/wp-content/uploads/End-the-Bracket-Racket-Act-1.pdf)
 Senator E. Warren, retrieved 10/22/22, “Ultra-Millionaire Tax,” (https://elizabethwarren.com/plans/ultra-millionaire-tax)
 Patriotic Millionaires, retrieved 10/22/22, “Oppose Limitless Inequality Growth and Restore Civil Harmony (OLIGARCH) Act,” (https://patrioticmillionaires.org/wp-content/uploads/Oligarch-Act-Memo.pdf)
 Patriotic Millionaires, retrieved 10/22/22, see above
4 thoughts on “REINING IN GREAT WEALTH WOULD REDUCE POLITICAL CORRUPTION”
Great article on progressive taxation.
Jean, thanks much! Great to hear from you. I hope you’re doing well. I assume you’ve seen me in the ad for a YES vote on Question 1. My 15 seconds of fame finally arrived! 🙂
Great article!!! Easy to understand this very complicated concept.
Thanks, Nancy! I’m glad it was clear. This all gets complicated quickly!