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Plutocracy: If Corporations and the Rich Paid 1960s-Level Taxes, the Debt Would Vanish

By feeding the rich and their corporations one massive tax break after another, lawmakers have thrown a monstrous monkey wrench into our national finances.
 
 
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Once upon a time in America, back a century ago, our nation's rich paid virtually nothing in taxes to the federal government. And that same federal government did virtually nothing to better the lives of average Americans.

But those average Americans would do battle, over the next half century, to rein in the rich and the corporations that made them ever richer. And that struggle would prove remarkably successful. By the 1950s, America's rich and the corporations they ran were paying significant chunks of their annual incomes in taxes — and the federal projects and programs these taxes helped finance were actually improving average American lives.

America's wealthy, predictably, counterattacked — and, by the 1980s, they were scoring successes of their own.

Today, the rich and their corporations no longer bear anything close to their rightful share of the nation's tax burden. The federal government, given this revenue shortfall, is having a harder and harder time funding initiatives that help average working families. The result: a “debt crisis.”

This “debt crisis” in no way had to happen. No natural disaster, no tsunami, has suddenly pounded the United States out of fiscal balance. We have simply suffered a colossal  political failure. Our powers that be, by feeding the rich and their corporations one massive tax break after another, have thrown a monstrous monkey wrench into our national finances.

Some numbers — from an Institute for Policy Studies  report released this past spring — can help us better visualize just how monumental this political failure has been.

If corporations and households taking in $1 million or more in income each year were now paying taxes at the same annual rates as they did back in 1961, the IPS researchers found, the federal treasury would be collecting an additional $716 billion a year.

In other words, if the federal government started taxing the wealthy and their corporations at the same rates in effect a half-century ago, the federal debt to investors would almost totally vanish over the next decade.

Similarly stunning numbers have come, earlier this month, from MIT economist Peter Diamond and the University of California's Emmanuel Saez, the world's top authority on the incomes of the ultra-rich. These two scholars  have shared some fascinating “what ifs” that dramatize how spectacularly the incomes of our wealthiest have soared over recent decades.

In 2007, Diamond and Saez point out, taxpayers in the nation's top 1 percent actually paid, on average, 22.4 percent of their incomes in federal taxes. If  that actual tax burden were to about double to 43.5 percent, the top 1 percenter share of our national after-tax income would still be twice as high as the top 1 percent’s after-tax income share in 1970.

So why aren't we taxing the rich? Why are we now suffering such fearsome “debt crisis” angst? Why are our politicos so intent on shoving the “fiscal discipline” of layoffs and cutbacks — austerity — down the throats of average Americans?

No mystery here. Our political system is failing to tax the rich because the rich have fortunes large enough to buy off the political system. Again, some numbers can help us better visualize that plutocratic big picture.

In 2008, the IRS revealed this past May, 400 Americans  reported at least $110 million in income on their federal tax returns. These 400 averaged $270.5 million each, the second-highest U.S. top 400 average income on record.

In 1955, by contrast, America’s top 400 averaged — in 2008 dollars — a mere $13.3 million. In other words, the top 400 in 2008 reported incomes that, after taking inflation into account, amounted to more than 20 times the incomes of America’s top 400 a half-century ago.

 
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