Fisher: Tax hike not too much to ask of rich


Peter FisherBy Peter Fisher, Iowa Policy Project

The Great Recession officially ended almost four years ago. You would know that if you’re at the top of the economic heap, because corporate profits have rebounded very nicely, along with stock prices and dividends. But for millions of Americans recovery remains elusive. Jobs are scarce, wages stagnant.

This pattern of prosperity at the top and declining or stagnant living standards for the rest is not new. Over the past 40 years, our economy has been riding on healthy gains in productivity; American workers are producing 80 percent more per hour than they did in 1973.

But unlike previous periods, the gains from increased productivity have not been shared with working people. Real wages are only 10 percent higher than they were 40 years ago. From 1973 until the start of the Great Recession, about two-thirds of the income gains accrued to the top 1 percent. During the first two years of recovery, the top 1 percent not only captured all of the gain in income, but took some from the other 99 percent of us as well.

It is not asking too much of those who have reaped the benefits of our economy to contribute a little more to help pay for the education system and the public infrastructure that have supported our economy and that are needed to improve the prospects of working people. The so called “fiscal cliff” bargain in January took a tiny step toward addressing this problem by restoring tax rates on the top 0.7 percent of taxpayers to near the level that prevailed during the economic boom of the 1990s.

But even this weak measure affecting less than 1 percent seems to be too much for some. Steve Hammes complained on these pages (“When Taxes Go Up on Wealthy, Everyone Pays,” April 4) that taxing high earners costs everyone. He dismisses as a “populist attitude” the idea that the rich have reaped most of the economic gains. This is not an attitude; it is an indisputable fact.

Hammes asserts that taxing the rich will force them to raise the prices of things we buy, so the general public will end up paying their tax bills. This is nonsense.

Hammes seems to think that business owners have found a way to repeal the law of supply and demand. That might be their dream, but any business owner would be very surprised to learn that raising prices has no consequences. Basic economics tells us that people buy less when the price rises and that business owners will choose the same profit-maximizing price regardless of how much of that profit gets taxed.

Hammes also perpetuates the myth that a higher income tax on the rich is really a tax on business income. This is wrong for two reasons. First, a tax increase for the top 1 percent hits only households with total incomes of roughly $500,000 or more. Fewer than 3 percent of small businesses would be affected. Second, for households with incomes of $1 million or more, only 2.5 percent comes from operating a business. The rich get most of their income from capital gains, rent, interest and dividends — from owning assets, not from running a business.

The average car dealership owner, grocery store owner or insurance agent is not, as Hammes claims, among those who would pay more under the fiscal cliff deal or other proposals affecting those with incomes over $500,000. For that very small fraction of business owners who would pay higher taxes, let’s be clear: We are asking them to pay more because they are rich and can afford to.

There was a time from the end of World War II to about 1970 when economic growth was fueled by middle class prosperity. If we are to find a path back to shared prosperity, a good place to start is by taxing some of the income gains that have been captured overwhelmingly by the richest among us and using those funds to invest in our workforce and our economy in a way that benefits all of us.


Peter S. Fisher is research director of the Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. He is professor emeritus of urban and regional planning at the University of Iowa.

This guest opinion ran in the April 20, 2013, Des Moines Register.