Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax proposal has certainly sparked debates not just about basic questions of fairness, of morality, but also about the economic effectiveness and very meaning of taxation.
The debate raises the question of what it means to invest in America.
Beto O’Rourke, in the last debate, jumped on the Warren-bashing bandwagon, accusing Warren’s policies of being “more focused on being punitive or pitting one part of the country against the other instead of lifting people up.”
Elaborating O’Rourke’s critique in terms of the impact of the proposed tax on the economy, Lawrence Summers, Treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton, and law professor Natasha Sarin argued in a paper they wrote that a wealth tax would “undermine business confidence, reduce investment, degrade economic efficiency and punish success in ways unlikely to be good for the country or even to be appealing to most Americans.”
While we tend to hear in the media from billionaires like Bill Gates and Leon Cooperman and not the 99/9% of households that would not pay more taxes under Warren’s proposal, polls directly contradict Summer’s and Sarin’s claim, showing overwhelming public support for a wealth tax.
But let’s assess Summer’s and Sarin’s claims that the tax would “undermine business confidence, reduce investment, and degrade economic efficiency.”
In short, let’s explore the question of what it means to invest in America and whether a wealth tax would really constitute a reduction of investment in America.
First, let’s just reflect intuitively on whether a tax on just .1 percent of American households seems likely to “undermine business confidence” and “reduce investment.” Consumer spending makes up roughly 2/3 of the U.S. economy, so it stands to reason that policies geared toward fostering a consistently robust consumer and encouraging consumer confidence in the 99.9% of households just might be a more effective approach to stimulating economic activity and ensuring the long-term economic health. Just saying.
For example, a recent study from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute highlights the many ways raising the minimum wage would significantly improve Illinois’ economy. The study contends, “By raising the minimum wage, Illinois can boost worker incomes, reduce income inequality, increase consumer spending, grow the economy, generate tax revenues, and decrease taxpayer costs for government assistance programs.”
In a nutshell, raising the minimum wage to $15 would both save taxpayers money by decreasing the need for public assistance for the working poor (saving $87 million alone in food stamp outlays, according to the study), increase the revenue the state brings in from income and sales tax (generating, the study says, $380 million in new state tax revenue), and overall generate $19 billion in economic activity.
And let’s consider whether providing in universal childcare and helping to alleviate the burdens of college debt crippling many Americans, both benefits Warren’s wealth tax would pay for, would be good investments of our tax dollars in ways that would uplift American citizens and businesses.
Studies show that the high cost of childcare prevents women, in particular, from participating in the labor force, strait-jacketing the U.S. economy and reducing GDP by as much as five percent.
When it comes to student debt. according to a study from the Levy Institute, canceling the $1.4 trillion in student debt would spur economic activity to the tune of creating between 1.2 and 1.5 million new jobs in the first few years, creating tax-paying citizens who buy houses, start families, create businesses, and so forth.
Summers himself has made a similar point elsewhere, arguing that instead of these tax cuts, it would serve businesses better for the government to invest in the infrastructure and education of the workforce to help businesses be more competitive.
These investments in people trickle up.
And let’s remember, also, how effective Trump’s tax cut was in spurring investment and fostering economic efficiency.
These tax cuts benefited the wealthy and did not trickle down, despite Trump’s promises that companies would invest in workers and not cut jobs. Companies like AT&T, Wells Fargo, and General Motors lobbied for them, promising to re-invest their tax savings in their workers and companies to the benefit off the nation as a whole. And yet all of these companies have engaged in massive layoffs or plant closings. AT&T has eliminated over 23,000 jobs since the tax cuts went into effect, despite receiving a $21 billion windfall from the tax cuts with the prospect of cashing in an additional $3 billion annually in tax savings. In November 2018, GM announced it would be closing five plants, eliminating 14,000 jobs in communities across Ohio, Maryland, Michigan, and Ontario, Canada, while buying back $10 billion in stock and earning a net profit of $8 billion on which the company paid no federal tax. Wells Fargo did raise the minimum wage of its employees, though the tax savings for the company were 47 times larger than the cost of that pay raise to the company; and the company announced its plans in September 2018 to eliminate 26,000 jobs, at the same time that it has raised health insurance costs for its employees.
Reducing the corporate tax rate from 35 to 21 percent and saving corporations some $13 billion in taxes was supposedly to spur economic growth, create more jobs, and induce companies to raise wages. While Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin trumpeted that 90 percent of working adults would experience an increase in pay tied directly to the tax cuts, in fact only 4.3 percent of workers in Fortune 500 companies have received either a one-time bonus or an increase in wages. Businesses have reaped nine times more in tax cuts than what they have passed on to workers.
Maybe investing in people, with an toward, in fact, lifting them up, would be wiser and create a healthier economy for all, such that the wealth tax shouldn’t be viewed as punishing success but as an investment in the very economy and infrastructure that made the success of millionaire’s possible.
Directing resources through public policy not to the wealthy but to the worker contributes more powerfully to the health of the economy and overall society.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.