Resenting the Rich

April 7, 2009 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Economist on April 7, 2009.

This is half of a larger debate between Chris Edwards and Professor Thomas Piketty.

Should the rich pay higher taxes? Definitely not. Governments do not need any more money, and they misallocate much of what they already take from us. Furthermore, taxation imposes large deadweight losses on the economy, which makes us all poorer.

More on those points later, but first let us examine how much tax the rich are currently paying. In the United States, Congressional Budget Office (CBO) data show average effective tax rates for five income groups or quintiles. The CBO data include federal income, payroll, and excise taxes (www​.cbo​.gov/​p​u​b​l​i​c​a​t​i​o​n​s​/​c​o​l​l​e​c​t​i​o​n​s​/​t​a​x​d​i​s​t​r​i​b​u​t​i​o​n.cfm).

The most recent data for 2005 show that effective rates (taxes divided by income) for the quintiles starting at the bottom were 4.3%, 9.9%, 14.2%, 17.4% and 25.5%. That is a steeply graduated tax system. I would prefer a flat or proportional system because I believe in the American ideal of equal justice under law. But it is amazing that some people want to increase taxes on the rich when the top quintile is already paying a rate five times higher than the rate at the bottom.

The Economist’s proposition states: “Inequality has risen across the rich world since the 1970s” partly as a result of lower taxes on the rich. If income inequality has risen, the CBO data suggests that taxes are not the cause. The CBO data show that the effective tax rate on the top quintile has been fairly constant since 1979, hovering between 25% and 28%.

If there are disproportionately large tax cuts at the top end, it might lead to larger asset accumulations by the wealthy and greater pre‐​tax income inequality over time. But the CBO data show that is not what happened. The rich have been pummelled with an effective rate of 25% or more for decades, while effective rates on the other four quintiles have fallen modestly.

Statutory rates have been cut at the top end, but that has led to substantially higher reported income due to an increase in productive efforts and a reduction in tax avoidance. In a 2006 paper, Martin Feldstein at Harvard calculated that the elasticity of taxable income with respect to income tax rates is about 1, so that cutting the top rate from 40% to 30% would boost taxable income by about 16%. The result would be more work effort and less avoidance by entrepreneurs, doctors, scientists and others in the top quintile, which would greatly benefit the rest of us.

Unfortunately, President Obama wants to go in the other direction, raising the top two income tax rates, which would reduce production and increase avoidance by highly skilled people. Such economic damage from higher taxes is called deadweight loss. In the 2006 paper, Mr Feldstein argued that deadweight losses from a federal income tax rate increase would be $1.76 for every dollar of tax increase. That means that every new $1 billion spending programme in President Obama’s budget will destroy about $1.76 billion of activities in the private sector.

That is the economics of tax hikes, but what about the politics? The Economist proposition suggests that “resentment over inequality is growing ever more vocal … is taxing the rich more heavily necessary to buy social peace?” Consider that 43% of American households do not pay any federal income tax, according to data from the Joint Committee on Taxation. That large group is doing little to support the huge burden of the welfare state, so it is laughable that they might be angry at the wealthy who do bear the burden. The CBO data show that the top one‐​fifth of households pay 69% of the entire costs of the federal government. Frankly, the rest of Americans are free‐​riders on the top quintile’s enormous financial support of government.

In America, it is not rich and productive people that create resentment. Instead, it is corrupt politicians handing out special favours, it is the bungling bureaucrats we saw after Hurricane Katrina, and it is cabinet nominees who cheat on their taxes. Americans are not upset at wealthy Steve Jobs and his amazing innovations, but they are upset when they hear that global warming advocate Al Gore lives in a mansion that consumes 15 times more electricity than the average US home. It is hypocrisy, fraud and corruption that people do not like, not hard work and high incomes.

The main reason that we should not increase taxes on the rich is that most governments are far above their optimal size. Vito Tanzi, a former top economist at the International Monetary Fund, noted in a 2004 study: “All the theoretical reasons advanced by economists to justify the role of the state in the economy, including the need to assist the poor, could be satisfied with a much smaller share of spending of GDP than is now found in most industrial countries.” Mr Tanzi found that bigger governments were not correlated with better human development indicators such as education achievement, infant mortality or life expectancy.

There are fundamental reasons why big governments do not work very well. As taxes rise, resources are shifted from more efficient private activities to less efficient government activities. The private sector is not more efficient than government because it does not make mistakes, but because it has mechanisms to purge mistakes and move resources to higher‐​valued uses. Government policymakers do the opposite: they retain failed programmes year after year, and resources get stuck in low‐​value uses.

Even if politicians did focus on moving resources to higher‐​value uses, they would be unable to because government activities do not generate the price and profit signals needed to allocate capital and labour efficiently. A final problem is that government programmes are often horribly managed. To take one example, President Obama wants to expand subsidies for energy research, but past US energy subsidies have led to boondoggle after boondoggle, as I have documented at www​.down​siz​ing​gov​ern​ment​.org. Perhaps governments in other countries work better than in the United States, but I doubt it.

Some economists in America think that it is inevitable that taxes will rise in coming years. But Canada’s recent experience shows a different path. Since the early 1990s, Canada has cut individual and corporate tax rates, shrunk the overall size of government from 53% of GDP to 40%, and has consistently balanced its federal budget. In Canada, tax cuts, spending cuts and debt reduction have not led to less social peace, nor should it anywhere else.

About the Author
Chris Edwards
Director of Tax Policy Studies and editor of