marginal tax rates

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.

Why All the Labor Force Dropouts?

The distinguished Stanford University economist Robert Hall, co-architect of the famed Hall-Rabushka flat tax, once described himself to me as a [Bill] Clinton Democrat. Bob Hall wrote one of the most serious studies trying to figure out why the U.S. economy has remained so weak for so long. He concluded that much of the explanation lies in the ways in which recent marginal tax and transfer incentives discourage work.

Obama’s Plan to Raise Tax Rates

President Obama wants to raise the top two individual income tax rates for 2011. The top rates will rise from 33% to 36% and from 35% to 39.6%, unless the president and Congress agree to extend the current rate structure.

Before taking action on this issue, policymakers should consider the following facts and data. (All information is cited in my related congressional testimony).

The Reagan Tax Cuts, Budget Forecasting, and Government Revenue

While perusing the Internet, I saw an article by Iwan Morgan, who is the author of The Age of Deficits: Presidents and unbalanced Budgets from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush. The author asserted in this article that, “The deficit explosion on his watch was a nasty surprise for Ronald Reagan not a deliberate strategy to reduce government.  In his rosy interpretation of Laffer curve theory, the personal tax cuts he promoted in 1981 would deliver higher not lower revenues through their boost to economic growth.”

The White House Has Declared Class War on the Rich, but the Poor and Middle Class Will Suffer Collateral Damage

The 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are scheduled to expire at the end of this year, which means a big tax increase in 2011. Tax rates for all brackets will increase, the double tax on dividends will skyrocket from 15 percent to 39.6 percent, the child credit will shrink, the death tax will be reinstated (at 55 percent!), the marriage penalty will get worse, and the capital gains tax rate will jump to 20 percent. All of these provisions will be unwelcome news for taxpayers, but it’s important to look at direct and indirect costs.

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