An Arrogant Entrance, A Sad Exit

Sam Pizzigati

Republican leaders in Congress have never — in any of our lifetimes — entered a new year with higher hopes. They don’t just have a lockgrip on both chambers. They have an incoming president who’s itching to sign pretty much any legislation GOP lawmakers plop on his desk.

The plopping, GOP lawmakers have pledged, will begin almost as soon as Donald Trump takes his first steps into the Oval Office. They’re now rushing along legislation that would repeal Obamacare, neutralize the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and undo a host of new regulations that protect working people.

The economist Anthony Atkinson, the godfather of modern research on inequality, passed away on New Year's Day. The responsibility for tracking — and resisting — the inequality of the new Trump era will fall on the many scholars he inspired.

The economist Anthony Atkinson, the godfather of modern research on inequality, passed away on New Year’s Day. The responsibility for tracking — and resisting — the inequality of the new Trump era will fall on the many scholars he inspired.

All these initiatives, in the end, will have the exact same impact. They’ll all, once signed into law, make America’s rich and powerful even richer and more potent.

Repealing Obamacare, for instance, would also erase the pesky taxes on the rich that foot the program’s bill.

The enactment of Obamacare — the Affordable Care Act — placed a 0.9 percent Medicare tax hike on paycheck income over $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples. Under Obamacare, these same affluent taxpayers pay a 3.8 percent tax surcharge on their investment income, the capital gains they register buying and selling stocks and other assets.

This surcharge raises the overall capital gains tax rate for America’s most affluent from 20 to 23.8 percent. Repealing Obamacare — and wiping out this surcharge — would put an extra $38,000 in billionaire pockets on every $1 million made wheeling and dealing.

All told, the top 0.1 percent – households with incomes over $4.76 million – would average a $197,000 tax cut if Obamacare gets deep-sixed, the Tax Policy Center calculates.

This top 0.1 percent, according to the latest available stats, is already grabbing 11 percent of America’s income, over four times the top 0.1 percent share four decades ago.

How much higher can this top 0.1 share go? We’ll soon find out if GOP leaders and the incoming Trump administration get their tag-team act really rolling.

But at least one person who has cared deeply about inequality will never get to see the damage this tag team goes on to generate. On New Year’s Day, Anthony Atkinson, the godfather of modern research into income and wealth distribution, passed away at age 73.

Atkinson made his first global scholarly splash decades ago revealing just how concentrated — at the top — incomes worldwide were becoming. He ended his professional life with a book that outlined an ambitious set of proposals for ending the extreme income inequality his research documented.

What did Atkinson have to propose after a lifetime of studying inequality? His 2015 book Inequality: What can be done? calls for 15 specific initiatives ranging from a minimum wage set at true “living wage” levels to a 65 percent tax rate on top-bracket income.

Atkinson also wanted to see governments guarantee a job for everyone who needs one and a publicly provided “endowment” for every individual entering adulthood. Add into the mix Atkinson’s call for national savings bonds with guaranteed interest rates and a maximum holding per person, on top of steeply graduated progressive tax rates on property and inheritances, and you have a gameplan that could make a real egalitarian difference.

Atkinson inequality-fighting proposals essentially constitute a sweeping antidote to the wealth-concentrating package of policies Congress and the Trump White House agenda are now racing to enact. These same proposals, of course, have exactly zilch chance of ever getting past the current Congress or Donald Trump’s veto pen.

But Atkinson’s agenda merits our attention all the same. His proposals offer a vision of what could be — and some inspiration for working to get there. In this time of Trump, we need vision. We need inspiration. And we need to remember the life and work of Tony Atkinson.

Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His most recent book: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900–1970. Follow him on Twitter @Too_Much_Online.

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