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Robert Reich

A super-high tax for the super rich? Wouldn't be the first time.

A proposal to raise the marginal tax on incomes over $15 million to 70 percent seems unrealistic to some, but under President Eisenhower, the highest marginal tax rate was 91 percent.

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In fact, a Democratic president should propose a major permanent tax reduction on the middle class and working class. I suspect most of the public would find this attractive. But here again, the only way to accomplish this without busting the bank is to raise taxes on the rich.

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Republicans have done a masterful job over the last thirty years convincing the public that any tax increase on the top is equivalent to a tax increase on everyone — selling the snake oil of “trickle down economics” and the patent lie that most middle-class people will eventually become millionaires. A Democratic president would do well to rebut these falsehoods by proposing a truly progressive tax.

Will the rich avoid it? Other critics of my proposal say there’s no way to have a truly progressive tax because the rich will always find ways to avoid it by means of clever accountants and tax attorneys. But this argument proves too much. Regardless of where the highest marginal tax rate is set, the rich will always manage to reduce what they owe. During the 1950s, when it was 91 percent, they exploited loopholes and deductions that as a practical matter reduced the effective top rate 50 to 60 percent. Yet that’s still substantial by today’s standards. The lesson is government should aim high, expecting that well-paid accountants will reduce whatever the rich owe.

Besides, the argument that the nation shouldn’t impose an obligation on the rich because they can wiggle out of it is an odd one. Taken to its logical extreme it would suggest we allow them to do whatever antisocial act they wish – grand larceny, homicide, or plunder – because they can always manage to avoid responsibility for it.

Some critics worry that if the marginal tax is raised too high, the very rich will simply take their money to a more hospitable jurisdiction. That’s surely possible. Some already do. But paying taxes is a central obligation of citizenship. Those who take their money abroad in an effort to avoid paying American taxes should lose their American citizenship.

Finally, there are some who say my proposal doesn’t stand a chance because the rich have too much political power. It’s true that as income and wealth have moved to the top, political clout has risen to the top as well.

But to succumb to cynicism about the possibility of progressive change because of the power of those at the top is to give up the battle before it’s even started. Haven’t we had enough of that?

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