Wealth Taxes: A Future Battleground
Illustration: Evan Hughes
But don’t relax too quickly, because fiscal problems remain very real for many countries. While virtually every government could pay off its debts by taxing wealth, such taxes are often politically unacceptable. In other words, fiscal problems are best regarded as problems of dysfunctional governance. In the recent elections in Italy, the incumbent government lost voter support partly because it addressed the nation’s revenue problems by levying a wealth tax on real estate; the policy remains contentious and may yet be repealed or limited.
And here is a related issue: If there is enough national wealth to pay off debts, it may be harder to arrange bailouts from outside.
In the European Union, countries like Germany may regard the union’s more troubled nations as shirking their fiscal duties, and that makes cooperation harder to achieve. Italy, for instance, is in a fiscal crisis, but it also has an especially high wealth-to-income ratio, at 650 percent, indicating that it could pay off its debt if more of that wealth were taxed. Germany, by contrast, has a much lower wealth-to-income ratio: 400 percent. And though the professors caution that the German data, in particular, may be incomplete, the figures do lend support or at least plausibility to the recent argument that Germany shouldn’t be viewed as the rich uncle of Europe.
The coming battles over wealth taxation may prove especially bitter and polarizing. Most wealth has already been subjected to income and other taxes, perhaps multiple times. It doesn’t seem fair to the holders of that wealth to suddenly pay additional taxes on assets that they thought were in the clear, and such taxes would signal that previous policy has failed.
Higher wealth in a nation means that there is more to take, and growing inequality means there are more problems that its government might seek to remedy. At the same time, however, this new economic configuration will mean greater political influence for the holders of that wealth, and that will make higher wealth taxes harder to achieve.
Historically, economists — including me — have generally favored taxes on consumption, on the grounds that they would do the least damage to long-term savings, investment and economic growth. Yet in some eyes, rising wealth will become a tempting target for short-term political gain. And note that while most Republicans currently oppose consumption taxes, they may dislike the relevant alternative, namely wealth taxes, even more.
Get ready to choose a side.
Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University.