Aristotle, the Pope, and Income Inequality
Aristotle, when comparing forms of government, pointed out some of the problems in a democracy. When the poor gain too much power, they will enrich themselves out of the public treasury and the nation will become poor. If the wealthy gain too much power, then the nation will become an oligarchy and the poor will suffer. Oligarchs insist that citizens be treated differently based on wealth, and they argue that wealth is a sign of virtue and merit, and that the poor are poor because they lack those qualities. Aristotle concluded that: “A large middle class is absolutely essential for a stable and well-run government because the middle class do not covet rule, are not envious, foster friendship because of their similarity, and can act as neutral arbitrators between the rich and the poor.” – Aristotle’s Politics
There is ample evidence that the middle class in United States has declined sharply, while the country has moved toward oligarchy, allowing the wealthy to enrich themselves at the expense of the middle class, the poor, and also the nation. The chart below shows how the income is now divided in the United States, with the top 1% owning 38% of the wealth and the top 20% owning 82% of the wealth. Not only is the distribution of wealth much worse than what people consider ideal, it is even much worse than what they think it is.
According to Senator Bernie Sanders:
“While the very rich get richer, the middle class continues to disappear and we now have more people living in poverty than ever before. Despite huge increases in technology and productivity, tens of millions of workers are finding it harder to feed their families, pay for health care, send their kids to college or put aside savings for retirement.” In recent years, 95% of all new income has gone to the top 1%, we have seen a huge increase in the number of millionaires and billionaires. While the average American is increasingly unrepresented in the political process, the very wealthy are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to justify their wealth and to convince voters to elect candidates who will further their interests.”
The wealthy consider the money an investment which has paid off handsomely. It has bought tax breaks, loopholes, and subsidies. Many wealthy Americans are even reaping the lions share of many federal programs that were intended to help the poor and disadvantaged.
Trickle Down economics is behind the redistribution of wealth that began during the 1980’s, as shown in the chart at the right. When President Reagan came into office in 1980 the top tax rate was 60%, a rate which the wealthy thought was much too high. Arthur Laffer developed the supply side arguments that led to taxes being cut using the Laffer Curve . Mr. Laffer convinced the Reagan Administration that lowering the tax rate would give the job creators more money to invest, which would stimulate the economy and lead to greater tax revenue. Reagan cut the top tax rate to 28%, which put more money in the hands of the wealthy, but little of it trickled down. The economy grew at 3.5%, a lower growth rate than when tax rates were higher, the wealthy got wealthier, and the national debt almost tripled. The graph at the right shows a narrowing of the income gap when the Clinton administration raised taxes and a widening gap after the 2003 tax cuts.
Following Laffer’s trickle down theory put the U.S. on a slow spiral into debt, austerity, and income inequality. Tax rates are now clearly too low and, according to the Laffer curve, raising taxes should stimulate the economy. Certainly, raising taxes sufficiently would end our national debt problems and the shameless practice of using the national debt for political purposes. However, Congress thinks the problem is that we have not cut taxes enough, and Paul Ryan has proposed a Congressional budget that would further decrease tax rates. Paul Ryan has proposed reducing the top tax rate to 25%. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center estimated Ryan’s budget would add $5.7 trillion to the deficit over the next decade and would increase the after-tax income of the top 1% of citizens by 18%. His budget is a case of ideology trumping practical economics.
Jobs: Congressman Ryan is still working under the assumption that trickle down economics works, and he argues that further tax cuts would create jobs. That argument is discredited by Nick Hanauer, a billionaire who has helped start many companies. He explained on Ted.com that the rich aren’t the job creators, as job creation now comes from demand, and the demand would come from a large numbers of middle class consumers, a person making 1000 times as much as the average citizen does not buy 1000 times as much stuff. When someone calls themselves “job creators”‘, they are making a claim as Aristotle pointed out, on their virtue – the status and privileges they think they deserve. Mr. Hanauer says the 15% taxes that capitalists pay on interest, dividends, and capitol gains and the 35% the ordinary citizen pays on their job earnings is hard to justify. He points out that of the inequality has been justified by the fallacy that ” as taxes on the rich go up, job creation will go down”. His data shows the opposite to be true. He concludes that demand grows the economy, and taxing the rich to pay for investments that benefit all is the best thing we can do for the middle class, the poor, and for the rich as well.
“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”
“While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.”” Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. ” In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.” – Pope Francis
The IMF: Clearly, there are both sound economic and moral reasons that countries need to act for the common good by correcting income inequality. While the Pope acts to change hearts, the countries’ leaders need to act to make fairer economic policies, raise taxes, and cut out loopholes. The Guardian of financial orthodoxy, the International Monetary Fund, typically calls for nations in difficulty to slash public spending to reduce their deficits. But in this year’s Fiscal Monitor report, subtitled “Taxing Times”, the Fund advanced the idea of “taxing the highest-income people and their assets to reinforce the legitimacy of spending cuts and the fight against growing income inequalities.” There is both a moral and an economic imperative to do so.
(c) 2014 J.C. Moore