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The Stiglitz Code: How Taxing Capital Can Counter Inequality

Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz argues that tax reform is the key to addressing inequality in a new Roosevelt Institute paper released today. Click here to listen to Stiglitz describe the key arguments of the paper. Click here to read his recent congressional testimony on why inequality matters and what can be done about it.

The American economy is at a crossroads. One of the questions that will determine which path we take is whether and how the government can use taxes to meet social needs. In recent years there have been countless calls to overhaul the tax code, but few have offered a robust set of objectives framed around providing and supporting public goods. The vision of active and effective government in support of the economic common good that President Franklin D. Roosevelt advanced through the New Deal is fading from sight.

That changes with today’s release of “Reforming Taxation to Promote Growth and Equity” by Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow and Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz. In this transformative new white paper, the Nobel-winning economist who foresaw the economic crisis and the rise of the Occupy movement sets out to reshape the debate around the role of taxation in our society.

The ideas proposed in the paper are premised on core economic principles – taxing bads, encouraging goods – on which the vast majority of economists agree. The policy toolkit Stiglitz describes applies across the entire economic landscape. With growing wealth inequality and the political power of the top 1 percent in the spotlight thanks to the success of Thomas Piketty’s bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Stiglitz calls for taxing capital as if it were regular income and boosting inheritance taxes. He overhauls corporate taxation for the age of globalization and international tax havens, bringing money back to where it was made. He also proposes taxes on negative externalities to ensure that those whose actions do harm, whether in the form of environmental pollution or a financial crisis, pay the price.

The specifics are cogent and compelling. Stiglitz’s truly innovative idea is that we can raise tax revenue while also creating a better, more equal and just economy that works for all – the kind of economy that FDR believed in and fought for. Stiglitz makes the case that tax policy can and should counter some of the country’s biggest challenges: runaway inequality, the threat of climate change, and a business sector warped by bad incentives.

This will not be easy. The transition to a smarter, better tax code would require careful implementation. Tax expenditures would need to be replaced with a better mechanism to ensure that homeowners build equity and that the tax code doesn’t just subsidize the rich. The financial sector, too, would be subject to new taxes that, according to Stiglitz, “would not only raise substantial revenues, but also encourage that sector to better serve the needs of society.” Lobbyists would be out in force to resist and undermine these policy changes, as they have done with the new regulations imposed by Dodd-Frank.

But in an era when the debate over taxation is still dominated by austerity economics and a slash-and-burn approach, Stiglitz lays out a tax policy that would grow the economy. And instead of treating taxation as value-neutral or a necessary evil, he tells us that it can be a means to address important problems. This represents a fundamental and long-overdue shift in our public dialogue about the economy. The American people deserve a tax code that works for them. With this paper, we have the blueprint to create it.

Felicia Wong is the President and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaWongRI.

Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog.

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Photo: InnovationNorway via Flickr

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Good News For Progressive Economics: Big Thinkers Like Piketty Are Back In Vogue

Thomas Piketty’s success is no fluke; he and other progressive thinkers have redefined the public debate around inequality.

Inequality suddenly is the topic of the moment. Last weekend the French economist Thomas Piketty – whose recently published Capital in the Twenty-First Century is now #1 on the Amazon bestseller list, shocking for a 690-page macroeconomic tome – was not only the subject of dueling Paul Krugman/David Brooks op-ed columns in The New York Times. Piketty was also top of the fold in the Times’ Sunday Styles section (headline: “Hey, Big Thinker”), which made note of his “boyishly handsome” looks. Clearly, something is up.

At Boston Review, Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal provides an excellent overview of the response to Piketty from both left and right. (You can also listen to him discuss it with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer.) Much of the commentary seems to have gone, in only two or three weeks, from economic and policy questions (about his core formula, r>g, or about whether his recommendation of a global tax on capital is actually realistic) to observations that he is a “sign of his times.” In my view, this observation is absolutely right. Piketty’s argument about increasing returns to capital, relatively weak returns to labor, sluggish growth, and the overall rise of both income inequality and wealth inequality, is in fact perfectly in tune with our political and economic concerns today.

However, I would go much further than to say that Piketty is merely a sign of his times. I would say that he and other economists have actually defined these times — or at least helped create today’s environment. Piketty and his colleague Emmanuel Saez have been developing their top incomes database for the last 15 years, and publishing results along the way. Since 2003, Piketty’s data, based on an exhaustive review of tax records, has been setting the agenda and driving a tremendous amount of research. I first encountered the data in Winner-Take-All Politicsalso a bestseller, by political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson.

Moreover, a number of those involved credit Piketty’s data with sparking the 2011 rise of Occupy Wall Street and the 99 percent framing, which remains a central part of our national conversation. (Credit, according to many others, also goes to Roosevelt Institute’s Chief Economist Joe Stiglitz and his widely read April 2011 Vanity Fair piece, “Of the 1%, By the 1%, For the 1%.” )

My point is this: Big Thinkers, whether Thomas Piketty or Joe Stiglitz or others, are not just reflections of the times. They are creating today’s debate. Ideas really matter.

In congressional testimony on inequality Stiglitz gave three weeks ago, he noticed a real change in attitude among senators, who are open to everything from a carbon tax to changes in corporate taxation, carried income, and the like.

We are at a unique moment, thanks to Piketty, Stiglitz, the Occupy Wall Street organizers, and many others. Think tanks like Roosevelt Institute’s Four Freedoms Center have a window within which these ideas and arguments can make a very big difference – in the media, in Congress, and, I hope, in cities and towns nationwide. We are pushing hard here to create to a new normal in our understanding of the political economy. Our argument: you can increase economic growth and decrease inequality simultaneously.

But forces are also arraying against us. The conservatives have yet to fully organize their arguments against Piketty, but already the American Enterprise Institute is arguing that he is promoting the end of capitalism. (He isn’t.) Moreover, I am hearing from Washington sources that over the next year, and especially leading into the midterms, destroying any burgeoning inequality agenda is a central goal of the right wing.

If we want a new normal in our understanding of inequality, we need to be ready to go on the offensive – strategically and systematically. We have solutions. Recent evidence shows they can work. Now: can we put muscle behind the ideas?

Felicia Wong is President and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute. Follow her on Twitter at @FeliciaWongRI.

Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog.

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Photo: Sue Gardner via Wikimedia Commons