The Economics of Soaking the Rich: What does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez know about tax policy? A lot.
By Paul Krugman, Opinion Columnist for The New York Times
Jan. 5, 2019
I have no idea how well Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will perform as a member of Congress. But her election is already serving a valuable purpose. You see, the mere thought of having a young, articulate, telegenic nonwhite woman serve is driving many on the right mad – and in their madness they’re inadvertently revealing their true selves.
Some of the revelations are cultural: The hysteria over a video of AOC dancing in coHege says volumes, not about her, but about the hysterics. But in some ways the more important revelations are intellectual: The right’s denunciation of AOC’s “insane” policy ideas serves as a very good reminder of who is actually insane.
The controversy of the moment involves AOC’s advocacy of a tax rate of 70-80 percent on very high incomes, which is obviously crazy, right? I mean, who thinks that makes sense? Only ignorant people like … um, Peter Diamond, Nobel laureate in economics and arguably the world’s leading expert on public finance. (Although Republicans blocked him from an appointment to the Federal Reserve Board with claims that he was unqualified. Really.) And it’s a policy nobody has ever implemented, aside from … the United States, for 35 years after World War II – including the most successful period of economic growth in our history.
To be more specific, Diamond, in work with Emmanuel Saez – one of our leading experts on inequality – estimated the optimal top tax rate to be 73 percent. Some put it higher: Christina Romer, top macroeconomist and former head of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, estimates it at more than 80 percent.
Where do these numbers come from? Underlying the Diamond-Saez analysis are two propositions: Diminishing marginal utility and competitive markets.
Diminishing marginal utility is the common-sense notion that an extra dollar is worth a lot less in satisfaction to people with very high incomes than to those with low incomes. Give a family with an annual income of $20,000 an extra $1,000 and it will make a big difference to their lives. Give a guy who makes $1 million an extra thousand and he’ll barely notice it.
Look at the history of top marginal income tax rates (left) versus growth in real GDP per capita (right, measured over 10 years, to smooth out short-run fluctuations.):
What we see is that America used to have very high tax rates on the rich – higher even than those AOC is proposing – and did just fine. Since then tax rates have come way down, and if anything the economy has done less well.
Why do Republicans adhere to a tax theory that has no support from nonpartisan economists and is refuted by all available data? Well, ask who benefits from low taxes on the rich, and it’s obvious.
And because the party’s coffers demand adherence to nonsense economics, the party prefers “economists” who are obvious frauds and can’t even fake their numbers effectively.
Which brings me back to AOC, and the constant effort to portray her as flaky and ignorant. Well, on the tax issue she’s just saying what good economists say; and she definitely knows more economics than almost everyone in the G.O.P. caucus, not least because she doesn’t “know” things that aren’t true.