The great tax debate—the world is turning

February 21, 2019  —  By

Policy proposals by lawmakers in the United States have spurred a hotly contested debate on taxation among economists in recent weeks. The Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez argued that the US needed to raise additional revenue by going back to marginal top-income tax rates of up to 70 per cent to fund social programmes and a Green New Deal, while the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren proposed a wealth tax of up to 3 per cent on the richest. While opponents and some commentators have deemed such proposals radical or ideological, both are buttressed by economic research. Economists largely seem to agree on some basic facts: inequality within the US has been rising and the benefits of growth have accrued largely to the top 1 per cent, while the real incomes of what in America is called the middle class have stagnated over the past three decades. There is also consensus that the progressivity of the income-tax system has been eroded in many countries since 1980 and that wealth is currently much more unequally distributed than income.

The recent economic debate has thus revolved around whether higher taxes on top incomes or for very wealthy people should be deployed to counteract these trends. American progressives argue that higher revenues are needed if the US aspires to become more like the role-model European welfare state, with more inclusive social systems and better public services, financed by top marginal income-tax rates of above 40 per cent (in most EU countries) and/or some form of wealth tax. While some have misrepresented these ideas, they would only burden very wealthy individuals. For instance, very high marginal income taxes would be levied only on the part of income exceeding some threshold—in the case of Ocasio-Cortez’ proposal $10 million annually.

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