When the gods dance...

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Our Emperors, at Tax Time, Have No Clothes

Too Much

President Obama announced last week he’ll be turning back 5 percent of his salary, as a gesture of solidarity with furloughed federal employees. The move will cost the President $20,000 out of his $400,000 annual salary.

A few days earlier, news reports revealed that Danaher CEO Larry Culp has become the latest corporate chief exec to join the $100 million club. Culp collected $106.4 million last year. He essentially made more in a day — for running a tech firm — than the President made for the entire year.
Comparisons like this don’t startle us much anymore. Haven’t CEOs, after all, always made a lot more than Presidents? Actually, no. In fact, from the 1930s into the 1970s, Presidents routinely took in more than average CEOs. Richard Nixon’s 1970 paycheck trumped the CEO average by $45,000.

Last year’s CEO pay average, by contrast, topped presidential pay 24 times over — and average worker pay by well over 300 times. On what planet can any of this possibly make sense? In this week's Too Much, more on the nonsense around us — and the struggle against it.

Does outrageously high pay turn otherwise reasonable bankers into reckless cutthroats? Or does outrageous pay attract reckless cutthroats into banking? The author of a just-published review of business ethics at Barclays, the scandal-ridden British banking giant, can’t seem to make up his mind. Anthony Salz, a banker himself, conducted 600 interviews before releasing his 244-page report last week. Excessive pay, he found, “contributed significantly to a sense among a few that they were somehow unaffected by the rules.” But “elevated pay levels,” he also notes, “inevitably distort culture, tending to attract people who measure their personal success principally on compensation.” Between 2002 and 2009, 60 bankers at Barclays annually carved up over $258 million in bonuses . . .
Martin ZweigThe financier Martin Zweig loved to live large — and high. Back in 1999, Zweig paid a record $21.5 million for a 16-room spread at the top of the classic Pierre hotel tower just off Central Park in Manhattan. The maintenance fee for his new pad: $30,000 a month. Five years after moving in, Zweig tried to sell his posh digs. He asked $70 million, couldn't get it, and then pulled the apartment off the market. Zweig passed away this past February, at age 70. Now his widow, amid a Manhattan luxury boom, has placed the apartment back on the market — for $125 million. A sale at that price would set a new New York record for a luxury residence, more than $30 million over the current high mark . . .

The soaring market for Manhattan high-end property, a new Christie’s International Real Estate study reports, reflects an even broader global surge. Residential real estate, Christie’s CEO Bonnie Stone Sellers notes, has become “a tale of two markets — luxury and everything else.” Among the global hot spots: Miami, where South American buyers are collecting $5 million-and-up properties at a furious rate. The wealthy South Americans, says Christie’s, are worrying about “their own local economic conditions.” Their latest worry: Lawmakers in Argentina have just adopted legislation that limits the standard workweek for domestic workers in private residential service to 48 hours, mandates overtime pay, and sets a minimum age of 16 for domestic work.

Quote of the Week
“We’re experiencing the burden of austerity economics and the continued scourge of widening inequality. Both are squeezing average Americans. Yet it’s impossible to have a buoyant and sustained recovery without a large and growing middle class.”
Robert Reich, former U.S. labor secretary, The Big Stall, April 5, 2013
Michael Duke
This spring is not going well for Wal-Mart CEO Michael Duke. First PayScale, a salary info Web site, reported that Duke is taking home 1,034 times the typical Wal-Mart worker pay, giving the retailer America's widest CEO-worker pay gap. A top flack for Duke immediately protested. Duke only gains his millions, the flack explained, if Wal-Mart meets “performance goals” tied to “key financial priorities.” Bloomberg News then helpfully pointed out how Duke is meeting those priorities: by adding new stores — 455 of them — at the same time he's shedding workers! Wal-Mart, says Bloomberg, now “doesn’t have enough bodies” to stock shelves or staff checkouts. Another retail brainstorm on Duke's watch is also inviting ridicule: Wal-Mart is considering a plan that would have store customers make deliveries to people who order online.

Thief in the Night

Thief in the Night, a new work by the British artist Bill Posters, March 2013. The inspiration: the latest budget austerity attack on UK working families. We reward bankers with bailouts and tax breaks, notes Posters, “whilst they hold a gun to the heads of society and threaten our future if we do not follow them.”

Web Gem
Resilience Circles/ A jumping-off point for organizing local neighborhood, workplace, and congregational groups dedicated to learning, mutual aid, and egalitarian social action.

They Also Serve Who Sit and Sit and Wink
boardroomMeetings can be real drudgery. But some meeting-goers — the power suits who sit on America's corporate boards — never notice. They're too busy counting their cash. Directors at Goldman Sachs met 15 times in 2011. For this diligent sitting, Goldman paid them each $488,709. Last year, overall, director pay at top U.S. firms averaged $242,385, with many directors sitting on multiple boards and taking in millions. In return, they rubberstamp corporate pay plans that lavish rewards on top corporate execs. How can we end this corporate scam? A much brighter public spotlight might help. That may be on the way. The Center on Economic and Policy Research has just launched a new “Director Watch” project — to start naming names.

Take Action
on Inequality
Discomfort America's corporate elite. Share this new Center on Economic and Policy Research video and help fund the new Director Watch initiative.
inequality by the numbers
Fiscal cliff deal implications

Stat of the Week
Among the world’s 34 major industrial nations, Denmark last year had the highest top marginal tax rate, 60.2 percent on income over $55,000. The top federal rate in the United States last year: 35 percent. Californians this year will pay the highest top combined state and federal rate: 47.6 percent on income over $400,000.

At Tax Time, Our Emperors Have No Clothes

Today's conventional wisdom in Congress on taxing the rich — that tax rates on income at our economic summit have gone as high as they can sensibly go — has no real evidence to support it.

This past January, Congress raised the federal tax rate on joint return income over $450,000 from 35 to 39.6 percent. But the top federal rate, even with this boost, is still running under half the top rate back in America's Eisenhower years.

What to do? Some Democrats in Congress — the members of the Progressive Caucus — want to raise the nation's top tax rate still higher, up to 49 percent on annual income over $1 billion.

But no big-time movers and shakers in Washington, from either party, support higher top rates. Republicans typically claim that higher rates would undermine the incentive to work, save, and invest. GOP hard-liners even balk at moves to shut tax loopholes. Any step that hikes tax bills, they hold, invites calamity.

Mainstream Democrats, for their part, generally consider higher tax rates and moves to close tax loopholes an either/or proposition. Instead of raising current top rates, they argue, we should keep top rates modest and apply these modest rates to the “broader tax base” that limiting loopholes would create.

Not all these lawmakers, of course, agree on what constitutes a loophole. More Wall Street-friendly Democrats, for instance, gag at the thought of ending the enormously lucrative tax break for capital gains, the profits from buying and selling stocks and other assets that flow overwhelmingly to America's richest.

The bottom line? For an assortment of reasons, congressional majorities on both sides of the aisle have come to what amounts to a “bipartisan consensus” on increasing tax rates at the top. That consensus: don't do it.

Few lawmakers dare to challenge this admonition. But this timidity makes no sense. The current consensus against higher top tax rates, as analyst Andrew Fieldhouse details in a just-released study for the Economic Policy Institute and the Century Foundation, rests on an amazingly shaky foundation.

Fieldhouse's new paper, A review of the economic research on the effects of raising ordinary income tax rates, walks us through the last decade of top-notch research on top tax rates and, along the way, readily demolishes conservative claims that high taxes on high incomes will doom America to economic despair.

Tax rate reductions since the 1970s, the research shows, haven’t strengthened the economy. They’ve had “a statistically insignificant impact” on the factors that drive economic growth: labor supply, savings, investment, and gains in productivity.

What these rate cuts have done: They’ve “discernibly widened,” Fieldhouse relates, “structural budget deficits and exacerbated income inequality.”

Fieldhouse also shows — and this may be his paper’s most politically significant contribution — that efforts to broaden the tax base and efforts to raise top tax rates can and should go hand in hand. His explanation why revolves around the concept of taxable income “elasticity,” economist-speak for how the income taxpayers report may rise and fall with changes in tax rates.

This elasticity — how taxpayers behave at tax-reporting time — depends in large part on the loopholes the tax code offers.

If loopholes beckon at every turn — and efforts to enforce the tax code’s integrity remain lax — wealthy taxpayers just step up their tax-avoidance efforts when taxes rise. The IRS ends up collecting less revenue than the agency would have collected had the wealthy not stepped up their avoidance behaviors.

By contrast, if Congress seriously went after loopholes — and toughened up tax law enforcement — wealthy taxpayers would have fewer avoidance options. “Elasticities” would fall. The new tax revenue collected from higher tax rates would increase.

In sum, writes Fieldhouse, “base-broadening tax reform and higher marginal rates should be seen as complements, not substitutes.”
The payoff if we do both? Oh, not much: just more tax revenue to fund programs that help average American families, a stronger overall economy, and a meaningful pushback against growing inequality!

Recent economic research, Andrew Fieldhouse goes on to add, puts the optimal top tax rate for maximizing revenue at just north of 66 percent, well above the current top rate.

Top tax rates in the United States used to flutter in that lofty vicinity. Moving back closer to those top rates, Fieldhouse's new study helps us understand, would make wonderful sense economically.

Whether that move back to higher tax rates at the top comes to make sense politically to America’s lawmakers depends, of course, on the rest of us — and the political pressure we choose to bring to bear.

New Wisdom
on Wealth
Andrew Jackson, Income inequality: A matter of life and death, Globe and Mail, April 1 2013. A York University analyst explores how life expectancy links to inequality, not just poverty.

Emily Schwartz Greco and William Collins, Under-Taxing the Rich Is Uncivilized, OtherWords, April 3, 2013. We all pay, the long run, when the wealthy pay less in taxes.

David Leigh, Leaks reveal secrets of the rich who hide cash offshore, Guardian, April 4, 2013. A massive leak from the British Virgin Islands has the world’s wealthiest no longer certain that their fortunes remain hidden.
Dean Baker, President Obama Proposes a Bigger Hit to Seniors than to the Rich, Beat the Press, April 5, 2013. The new White House budget plan to limit the Social Security cost-of-living adjustment will cost seniors more than the fiscal cliff deal costs the $500,000-per-year set.
Sheila Krumholz, Rich Candidates Are Not the Solution, New York Times, April 3, 2013. The Center for Responsive Politics director takes on those who claim that rich candidates can't be corrupted.

The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class cover
The introduction chapter
to Too Much editor Sam Pizzigati's new book now ready to read online.
new and notable
Let's Bust Some Right-Wing Myths on Taxes

New Tax Laws in Effect in 2013 Have Modest Progressive Impact, Citizens for Tax Justice, Washington, D.C., April 1, 2013
Are poor people in the United States getting a free ride at tax time? Are rich people bearing the vast bulk of the nation’s tax burden — and even more of it since President Obama signed the “fiscal cliff” tax deal into law?
No one can really answer these questions, in any sort of serious fashion, without looking at all the taxes Americans pay, not just taxes at the federal level, and without taking into account all the income Americans are making, not just the income that gets counted in federal adjusted gross income figures.

This new Citizens for Tax Justice report takes both these steps — and finds that America’s rich and America’s poor each shoulder a share of the nation’s tax burden that roughly equals their current share of the nation’s annual income.

America's top 1 percent, the report calculates, will collect 21.9 percent of the nation’s income this year. These same top 1 percenters will pay 24 percent of their $1,462,000 average incomes in combined local, state, and federal taxes.

The bottom 1 percent — Americans making less than $21,000 — will pull in 3.3 percent of the nation’s income and bear 2.1 percent of the total tax burden.

What impact is the fiscal cliff tax deal having? The deal, notes this new Citizens for Tax Justice study, has resulted in a tax system “modestly more progressive” than the system we would have had “if Congress had simply extended all of the tax laws in effect in 2012.”

The top 1 percent, if 2012 tax laws had been extended into 2013, would be bearing 23.1 percent of the nation's total tax burden, a tiny blip down from the 24 percent share America’s deepest pockets will pay under the fiscal cliff deal.

No comments:

Post a Comment