Melanie Sturm: Think Again
August 3, 2011
In a Russian joke, there are two friendly farmers, Boris and Ivan. Both are prosperous, though Boris owns chickens and Ivan doesn’t. When a genie offers Ivan anything he desires, he ponders his wish and orders, “Kill Boris’ chickens!”
As Americans imbued with entrepreneurial spirit, a tradition of social mobility, and a sense of fairness and morality, we’re bemused by this joke. Why didn’t Ivan aspire to own chickens himself, or cows? Doesn’t Ivan realize he’s hurting everyone’s standard of living by depriving everybody of eggs and chicken meat? Why deny opportunity to shopkeepers, butchers and restaurants – and all their employees?
By living in a zero-sum world where one can only profit at the expense of others, Ivan can’t comprehend (as Americans do) that a neighbor’s prosperity can enhance our lives, raise our standard of living and create economic opportunities for more people. Ingenious billionaires who developed the automobile, laptop, Facebook and iPhone were rewarded because they improved society’s standard of living, not by clawing a fortune out of society’s guts.
If you believe this “beggar-thy-neighbor” mentality doesn’t exist in the U.S., Think Again. Economic distress creates fertile ground for “the politics of envy” allowing opportunistic politicians to distract us from real problems by accusing wealthier Americans of not paying their “fair share” and by bashing selected (poll-tested) industries. However, the “soak-the-rich” narrative is dangerously divisive, socially corrosive, economically detrimental – and untrue.
The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development studied 24 economies and concluded “Taxation is most progressively distributed in the United States.” Here, the wealthiest 10 percent (individuals and small businesses) making more than $92,400 per year pay three-quarters of the nation’s income taxes, while half of Americans pay none and nearly 70 percent receive more government benefits than they’ve paid in.
Social justice doesn’t require such a progressive system, though it allows society to express compassion for its neediest. The question is: At what point does forced redistribution of income as a means of social policy destroy individual initiative, becoming economically detrimental and socially unjust to all strata of society?
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Given our economic straits, we’re there. According to IRS data and based on current government spending levels, even if the government instituted a 100 percent tax on both corporate profits and incomes above $250,000 per year, it would only yield enough revenue to run the government for six months. That’s because government spending has swollen to 24 percent of GDP from 18 percent in 2000.
Despite these facts, politicians promote resentment to create sympathetic voting blocks, pointing to widening income gaps between rich and poor. However, Americans don’t begrudge our neighbor’s success; we crave it, relying on social mobility to achieve it. While acknowledging the need for a sturdy social safety net, we know instinctively what IRS data proves – the vast majority of “the poor” do not remain poor in America.
Like an elevator, Americans ride the income ladder, from one statistical category to another. Three-quarters of Americans whose incomes were in the bottom quintile in 1975 were also in the top 40 percent during the next 16 years, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Incomes of taxpayers in the bottom quintile rose 91 percent by 2005, compared to those in the top quintile whose incomes rose only 10 percent – those in the top 5 percent actually declined by 26 percent. So much for the “rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.”
Though tax-rates (and loopholes) influence economic behavior, government revenues correlate more with economic growth. One hundred years of IRS data show the wealthy avoided higher tax-rates and supplied less tax revenue when marginal rates were higher. Irrespective of marginal rates (which have ranged between 92-28 percent since 1952) government revenues historically hovered around 18 percent of GDP. Additionally, when rates were lower, GDP growth was higher.
Therefore, America’s goal should be to generate economic growth to create more jobs, meaning more taxpayers and more government revenues to pay off our debt. This requires fiscal discipline and comprehensive tax-reform including the elimination of tax loopholes and subsidies for the politically favored, and globally competitive tax-rates. Australia, Canada and Sweden just instituted similar measures resulting in material economic improvements. Why can’t America?
Without such measures, the dirty little secret is that the money to pay for our bloated government (and $14.3 trillion in debt) must also come from the middle-class and future generations. That’s not only an economic problem, it’s a moral one when those without a voice are deprived of economic opportunity.
Abraham Lincoln encapsulated America’s notion of fairness saying, “That some should be rich shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but … build one for himself.”
Those who practice class warfare (and Ivan) should Think Again.
Melanie Sturm lives in Aspen. Her column runs every other Thursday. She reminds readers to Think Again. You might change your mind.
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