Tag: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Why Does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Support a 70% Top Marginal Tax Rate? What Psychology Says About How Envy and Compassion Motivate Tax Preferences

This month, the newly minted Democratic Congresswomen from New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) suggested levying a 70% tax rate on the rich. After stagflation in 1970s, many had assumed we’d reached a consensus that extraordinarily high marginal tax rates are unsustainable. So why do these ideas keep popping up? Social psychology may help explain why. A recent academic study finds that support for redistribution by taxing the rich to give to the poor is likely driven by several psychological motives including not only compassion but also envy.

In an interview with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes Rep. Ocasio-Cortez explained:

You know, it— you look at our tax rates back in the ’60s and when you have a progressive tax rate system. Your tax rate, you know, let’s say, from zero to $75,000 may be ten percent or 15 percent, et cetera. But once you get to, like, the tippy tops—on your 10 millionth dollar— sometimes you see tax rates as high as 60 or 70 percent. That doesn’t mean all $10 million are taxed at an extremely high rate, but it means that as you climb up this ladder you should be contributing more.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez says the money would be spent on the “Green New Deal” to end use of fossil fuels within 12 years. This would be an ambitious goal, particularly since about 80% of the energy we all currently use in the U.S. comes from fossil fuels. Raised revenue could also go toward her proposal for government-supported health care, and government-paid college. Paul Krugman blessed the idea with his New York Times piece, “The Economics of Soaking the Rich,” saying he believed such a high rate was “optimal.”

What motivates these beliefs of “Soaking the Rich”? Of course, no one can know with certainty what are Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’ true motivations. However, social psychologists in “Support for redistribution is shaped by compassion, envy, and self-interest, but not a taste for fairness,” investigate broadly what motivates people to support income redistribution. In short, they find that envy, compassion, and self-interest drive support for high taxes on the rich. Notably, they find that people who are compassionate are significantly more likely to support redistribution and give charitably. However, envious people support income redistribution but are not more likely to give charitably. This suggests that one way to know if a person’s desire to soak the rich is due to altruism or resentment is to find out if they choose to volunteer or give charitably in their private lives.

The researchers measured support for income redistribution using agreement with statements like “wealth should be taken from the rich and given to the poor” and “the government should increase taxes to give more help to the poor” and “inequality in the distribution of wealth is unjust.” Participant answers to these questions were averaged together to create an average preference for redistribution.

Most Economists Know There’s No Free Lunch on High Marginal Tax Rates

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suggested a 60-70 percent federal income tax rate on those earning over $10 million, prominent economists and economic commentators Matt YglesiasPaul Krugman and Noah Smith argued that her policy prescription was simply mainstream economics.

But a new Chicago Booth IGM Survey poll suggests economists are generally much more skeptical of the wisdom of jacking up top federal tax rates than these commentators suggest.

The economists were asked whether a top federal marginal income tax rate of 70 percent within the current code would raise substantially more revenue than today’s 37 percent without lowering economic activity. Just 18 percent of those surveyed agreed, against 49 percent who disagreed (21 percent vs. 63 percent when weighted by confidence.)[i]

Top MTRs

In other words, a clear majority of economists believe there’s no free lunch from higher marginal rates on the top income bracket. Either it will raise revenue but with economic distortions, or it won’t raise revenue, or it will both fail to raise revenue and be detrimental to broader economic health.

It’s worth noting the wording of the question does not leave much room for nuance. Richard Thaler asked why it deviated from Ocasio-Cortez’s actual proposal. Kicking in at a much higher income level, and so on a group likely to be more responsive in terms of tax planning, her policy would certainly raise less revenue than the policy asked about in the question.

Several other economists said they would have changed the way they voted if a word like “substantially” was inserted in front of economic activity too. But overall, a host of the economists commented to the effect that such high marginal rates within the current code would lead to a whole host of new avoidance activity, on the one hand, and reduced labor supply on the other.

Given the particular wording of the question, the most interesting vote cast was that of Emmanuel Saez, who has been responsible for much research in this area. Intriguingly, he was in the minority in voting that he agreed a 70 percent top marginal rate would raise revenue without lowering economic activity.

On one level, that’s not surprising. His work with Peter Diamond concluded that a total combined 73 percent top marginal tax rate would be revenue maximizing and “optimal” if we put zero weight on the welfare of the rich. They believe too that the real economic responses to higher top tax rates would be small. As such, their research is the academic go-to for those arguing for much higher top marginal tax rates.

But when you read the details of how they got to that result, it’s difficult to see how Saez answered this IGM question in the affirmative. The Diamond-Saez paper makes clear their 73 percent result only holds if you presume policymakers could redesign the tax code to eliminate deductions, exemptions and other possibilities for tax planning or avoidance.

If not, then presuming people in the top tax bracket are as responsive today to tax changes as in the 1980s, the revenue maximizing total combined marginal tax rate would be much lower at 54 percent – equating to around a 48 percent marginal federal income tax rate. This, incidentally, is very similar to the revenue-maximizing income tax rate calculated by the UK government.

According to Saez’s own work then, raising the 37 percent top marginal income tax rate to 70 percent within the current code (as the question clearly sets out), would take us far beyond the revenue maximizing top marginal tax rate. It would be self-defeating in terms of revenue raising. We would be far on the wrong side of the Laffer curve.

It seems extraordinarily unlikely, in a world where 48 percent is the revenue maximizing rate, that a 70 percent rate would raise “substantially more revenue” than a 37 percent rate, as Saez’s answer implies.


[i]  In 2019, the 37 percent rate will apply to all single filers with more than $510,300 of taxable income.