Equity and Sensibility

Leo Gerard

A long time ago, in an historical America, lawmakers determined a progressive tax code to be the fairest and most logical for all.

The legislators asked more of those who had benefitted most from the advantages America provides. They asked less of those who benefitted least.

As time passed, the rich and wealthy corporations perverted the progressive tax code. Now what America’s got is a flip-flop under which the fabulously wealthy pay taxes at rates lower than the middle class.

This week, President Obama proposed returning the tax code to a time closer to equity and sensibility. He asked that millionaires and corporations pay taxes at the same rate as the middle class. Not more, as they once did. But at an equal rate. It’s not revolutionary. It’s retro. And it would help create jobs.

It’s an idea whose time has come – again. And it should be implemented immediately.

Obama called it the Buffett Rule after billionaire Warren Buffett who has written repeatedly that he thinks it’s wrong that he pays taxes at a lower rate than his secretary. He spoke out most recently in a New York Times op-ed on Aug. 14 titled, “Stop Coddling the Super-Rich.” Here’s what he said:

“Our leaders have asked for ‘shared sacrifice.’ But when they did the asking, they spared me. I checked with my mega-rich friends to learn what pain they were expecting. They, too, were left untouched.

“While the poor and middle class fight for us in Afghanistan, and while most Americans struggle to make ends meet, we mega-rich continue to get our extraordinary tax breaks.”

His petition to American lawmakers for a return to fairness has been joined by fellow billionaire Mark Cuban and a large group of Americans calling themselves Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength. In an open letter to political leaders, these millionaires asked to be taxed more. It says:

“We are writing to urge you to put our country ahead of politics.

“For the fiscal health of our nation and the well-being of our fellow citizens, we ask that you increase taxes on incomes over $1,000,000.”

Cuban wrote on his blog that millionaires may choke when they see the size of their tax bills, but then they should rejoice at having such a “problem.” He also said:

“In these times of ‘The Great Recession’ we shouldn’t be trying to shift the benefits of wealth behind some curtain. We should be celebrating and encouraging people to make as much money as they can. Profits equal tax money. While some people might find it distasteful to pay taxes. I don’t. I find it Patriotic.”

The rich are ready to pay their fair share. It’s not fair now. Buffett and the other richest 399 billionaires in America pay an average income tax rate of 16.6 percent, while a worker earning between $35,000 and $84,000 a year pays a marginal rate of 25 percent.

Obama described the simple math of tax rates in seeking institution of the Buffett Rule. The nation is faced with a massive deficit and a crushing recession. America doesn’t receive sufficient tax revenues to buy everything it wants. So it must make choices. It could continue to give the rich and corporations special tax treatment and pay the country’s debts on the backs of the middle class. That would require slashing the programs that sustain workers – Medicare, Medicaid, food inspection, public education, Pell Grants – and the government programs that kindle the economy and provide middle class jobs such as infrastructure construction.

Or America could ask the rich to pay a tax rate equal to that of the middle class. America could end outrageous loophole for massively-profitable corporations – loopholes that not only enabled GE to pay no taxes at all last year but allowed it to demand the government give it $3.2 billion! Asking the rich to pay an equitable rate would raise enough money to moderate cuts to crucial government services.

The wealthy supporters of increasing taxes on the wealthy recognize another benefit of paying more – it increases their ability to earn more. Government services, from public schools and roads to civil courts and patent protections benefit business. Cutting funding for those services threatens business profits.

In addition, if government spends money to renovate schools and improve infrastructure as Obama has proposed in his jobs plan, it creates jobs. Those workers spend money. And that stimulates demand for products.

Only when corporations experience demand will they begin spending some of the record $2 trillion in cash they are now just sitting on to hire new workers. Those new workers will spend their paychecks, further increasing demand. It’s a virtuous cycle. The rich pay more in taxes and get more in profits.

Tax equity is not radical. It’s basic fairness. In fact, it’s not even progressive. Progressive would be returning to the days when the fabulously wealthy and profit-fat corporations paid higher tax rates than the middle class. Progressive would be charging the rich a “wealth tax” each year, not on their earnings but on the value of their holdings. This tax, suggested for the United States by Yale law professors Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, already is collected by France, Norway, Switzerland and five other countries.

Parity isn’t progressive. But it is equitable and sensible.

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Leo W. Gerard also is a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Committee and chairs the labor federation’s Public Policy Committee. President Barack Obama recently appointed him to the President’s Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiations. He serves as co-chairman of the BlueGreen Alliance and on the boards of the Apollo Alliance, Campaign for America’s Future and the Economic Policy Institute. He is a member of the IMF and ICEM global labor federations and was instrumental in creating Workers Uniting, the first global union. Follow @USWBlogger.

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