In my view, raising and indexing the minimum wage, enhancing the Earned Income Tax Credit, and expanding and improving public services ought to be our top priorities for boosting the incomes and living standards of Americans in the lower half of the income distribution. What about the other component of rising inequality: soaring incomes of those in the top 1%?

It’s tempting to want to intervene directly in markets to reverse this trend. One way to do so is to legislate some sort of pay cap — a maximum wage, if you will. I don’t think this is the right way to go. If the value-added by particular individuals — a CEO, financial innovator, top athlete, movie star, or what have you — is sufficient to merit pay above the cap, firms will figure out ways to get around it, for instance by providing non-monetary perks or deferring pay.

Stricter regulation of the financial sector is another possibility. This is a good idea, though mainly to prevent a repeat of the current economic downturn. If doing so has the indirect effect of reducing enormous payouts to financial players, so much the better.

The simplest and best strategy is to let markets largely determine high-end earnings and incomes and use the tax system to redistribute (more here and here). We should increase the top income tax rate and/or add one or more new rates for those with very high incomes.

This would help to reduce income inequality. And it follows logically from the rationale for progressive taxation: the higher your income, the larger the share of it you can afford to pay in taxes. Since high-end pretax incomes have risen sharply in recent decades, those at the top can afford to pay a greater share of those incomes in taxes than they did in the past. So far they haven’t had to do so, as the following data on the top 0.01% of households (about 10,000 households) indicate. This group’s average inflation-adjusted pretax income soared from $7 million in 1979 to $35 million in 2005, but the share of that income they paid in taxes didn’t increase.

What’s the proper effective tax rate on top incomes? It’s the rate that is consistent with fairness norms and produces the most tax revenue without (significantly) reducing work, investment, and innovation. I don’t know what that rate is. Maybe it’s 40%. Perhaps it’s 50% or 60%. It could conceivably be even higher. Figuring this out requires policy adjustment and monitoring.


by Harry on April 17, 2009

Dolly, a play by Christopher Douglas (aka Ed Reardon and Dave Podmore) about the events surrounding Basil D’Oliveira’s selection to play for England (described and analysed rivetingly in Peter Oborne’s Basil D’Oliveira: Cricket and Conspiracy: The Untold Story (UK) which I discussed in detail here). With Douglas himself as Peter West.

How do we boost the incomes of Americans in the lower half (or two-thirds) of the distribution? I’ve discussed what I think are some helpful and some probably-not-so-helpful proposals. But our focus shouldn’t be exclusively on income. The well-being of lower- and middle-class Americans can be improved markedly by enhanced provision of government services.

Service use (consumption) doesn’t show up in income statistics. But services matter for living standards. If I have two kids in a public school that spends about $10,000 per year per child, I’m receiving the equivalent of a government transfer of $20,000. Other public services and public spaces — health care, child care, policing, transportation, roads, parks, libraries, and so on — have the same property. So too does free time funded or mandated by government via holidays and paid parental leave.

When provided by government at little or no cost to users, these services are akin to a transfer given in equal dollar amounts to all individuals or households. Our tax system is roughly flat: households at different points in the income distribution pay approximately the same share of their market (pretransfer-pretax) income in taxes. But a flat tax rate means those with high incomes pay many more dollars in taxes than do poor households. If the value of the government services the rich and poor use is roughly the same in dollars, then the tax-services system overall is quite redistributive. Here’s a way to see this, using tax payment data for 2004 and hypothetical data for consumption of public services:

Some services charge user fees that are structured progressively; those with higher incomes pay more. This makes the tax-services system even more redistributive. Financial aid means this is true for public (and many private) colleges here in the U.S., though we could go much farther. In Denmark and Sweden, fees for child care are scaled according to household income.

Imagine an America in which high-quality public services raise the consumption floor to a high level: most citizens can put their kids in high-quality child care followed by good public schooling and affordable access to a good college; they have access to good health care throughout life; they can get to or near work on clean and efficient public transportation or roads with limited congestion; they enjoy clean and safe neighborhoods, parks, roads, museums, libraries, and other public spaces; they have low-cost access to information, communication, and entertainment via reliable high-speed broadband; they have four weeks of paid vacation each year, an additional week or so of paid sickness leave, and a year of paid family leave to care for a child or other needy relative. Even if the degree of income inequality were no less than today and we still had CEOs, financiers, and entertainers raking in tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in a single year, that society would be markedly less unequal than our current one.

It’s worth emphasizing that markets too boost the consumption floor. New technologies and consumer products — indoor plumbing, cars, air conditioning, cell phones, ipods, and many others — have eventually become affordable for even the least well-off, and in doing so they reduce inequality of living standards. But markets haven’t, and likely won’t, bring us affordability coupled with high quality in health care, education, child care, safety, and mass ground transportation. In these and other areas, government is needed.

The United States provides less in the way of public services than many other rich countries, but we nevertheless have a rich history here, from universal elementary and secondary education to the interstate highway system to the internet. There’s a legacy to build on, and good reason to do so.