Thursday, May 8, 2014

Piketty's wealth tax is real - and it works

As the Piketty-train rolls on it leaves behind it a trail of confusion in economic circles about the proposition to reduce inequality via a global wealth tax.

Economic thinking, it seems, floats on the political tide. The authors of this paper in 2006 noted that
…at present there appears to be little interest in the net wealth tax. In recent years this tax has been practically excluded from any discussion or doctrinal debate on tax reforms, and over time has fallen into disfavour.
Eight years and one financial crisis later, the tide has turned dramatically in favour of using the tax system as a tool for creating a desirable wealth and income distribution.

Many sceptics, however, argue that a wealth tax, either national or globally, is technically or politically infeasible. The basic reasoning is as follows:
…it is impossible within the U.S., never mind the world, as the top 0.1% own the political machinery. Why would anyone who owns the political process agree to tax themselves?
It’s a good question. But it merely suggests we look deeper at the heart of the matter. I like to use one of Matt Bruenig’s favourite lines,“imagine people did things they already do”, as a starting point.

The point being that if the top 0.1% control the political system, then it should be impossible at all points in time to tax wealth.

Unless you are Spain, and it’s 1977. Or France and it is 1981.

Both these countries brought in annual taxes on wealth, with progressive scales just like income taxes. In France 1.5% of tax revenue came from their wealth tax in 2007, while in Spain around 0.5% of tax revenues are raised from such taxes.

Indeed most countries already raise about 5% or more of tax revenues from direct taxes on property, which is essentially a wealth tax on a slightly narrower definition of wealth.

So not only are wealth taxes possible, they are already a feature of the tax system in most countries.

Implementing a shift towards greater taxes on wealth merely requires a minor tweaking of tax rates and/or qualifying assets for taxes that already exist. The institutional machinery is already in place.

The question of the political power of the wealthy is certainly valid. But this merely provides guidance on likely political avenues for change. The obvious follow-up question is, what political circumstances led to the implementation of current wealth taxes?

I’m no expert here, and I’d appreciate any detailed accounts of the political climate at the time, especially in France and Spain. But it seems that the wealth tax was part of the French Socialist’s Party’s platform in the 1981 Presidential elections; which the right-wing party abolished in 1986, for it to be reinstated just two years later.

At first glance it appears that breaking the link between political power and the interests of the very wealthy, via democratic processes, is one successful political path for change.

It may even be of some assistance, politically, if the economic profession would stop pretending to debate the possibility of things people already do. Wealth taxes are certainly possible and are effective tools for reducing inequality.

Another wildly successful tax on wealth is the inheritance tax. Inheritance taxes are again real things, that real countries have, but that fell victim to the political tide of the 1970s in the anglosphere.

At their peak in 1968, taxes on inheritance made up 3.1% of Australian tax revenue, or 0.6% of GDP. In the UK inheritance taxes were 1% of GDP in the same year.

The chart below shows the massive shift away from such taxes at exactly the time inequality began to skyrocket across the anglosphere.


Australia, the UK and US all went through a political change in the 1970s that saw a dramatic reduction in revenue raised from this source, with Australia and the US abolishing inheritance taxation altogether in 1989.

Germany and France maintained these taxes, which have generated an increasing share of revenue since the 1970s. Australia however, chose to forgo this progressive tax and in doing so has forgone significant public revenues.  Last year alone the revenue from an inheritance tax levied as per 1968 would have raised over $9billion.

Not surprisingly countries that reduced or removed inheritance taxes saw the most rapid rise in inequality since the 1980s. Below I use the data from Alvaredo, Atkinson, Piketty and Saez’s World Top Incomes Database to show this relationship.


The top 1% share of income shoots up in the 1980s in the UK, US and Australia, while staying steady in France, and also Germany (at least till the late 1990s).

Once again the political tide is in favour of taxing wealth. The economic debate, however, is settled. Wealth taxes reduce inequality. Most countries already implement taxes on wealth to some degree, either through annual or inheritance taxes, and have institutional mechanisms in places to administer the them. The sceptics do raise an important political question, but we should learn from history and see that democratic processes, in which economists play a part, can provide avenues for change.

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