David Leonhardt, the prescient and hard-headed New York Times economics columnist, states flatly that "your taxes are going up" in his column of Feb. 25. Leonhardt's data and arguments reinforce those I have made in The End of the American Century, in my Op-Ed for the Christian Science Monitor ("This is not the time to cut taxes"); and in other posts here.
Leonhardt argues that if we want the government services that we have come to expect and rely on (like national security, infrastructure, Medicare, education), we need more federal revenues, because at the moment "we are not paying nearly enough taxes to maintain those programs." He sees taxes going up soon, "and the increase will be permanent."
On the upside, Leonhardt argues, there is room for such an increase, and it will probably not hurt economic growth. As he points out, for a half century federal taxes have remained fairly constant relative to the size of the economy--at about 18% of GDP. "But the 18 percent era has to end soon."
In The End of the American Century, I show that US tax rates are low in global comparisons.
"Compared to other wealthy countries, the United States has among the lowest rates of both individual and corporate income taxes, and total tax revenues in the U.S. (as a percentage of GDP) are lower than those in most of the affluent democracies that are members of the OECD [see OECD data here]. Thus, not only is the U.S. spending and consuming more than most countries, but it is not paying for the relatively few benefits that the government provides. This is the crux of the problem of the deficit and the debt."
Leonhardt argues (as I do in my CSM Op-Ed), the "despite all the scary stories you've heard, the evidence that higher taxes necessarily cripple an economy is somewhere between thin and nonexistent." He points out that the fastest postwar economic growth occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, "when the top marginal tax rate was a now-unthinkable 90 percent."
He also points out that it will not be sufficient to simply raise taxes on the very wealthy, as President Obama has proposed. The incomes and wealth of that group have soared in the last decade, as their federal tax rates have declined. So their higher tax rates should be restored.
But, as Leonhardt says, "the problem can't be solved just by taxing the rich." That top 1% pays only about one quarter of federal taxes. So the tax increases will have to spread more widely.
This will be a very difficult task politically. No politician wants to raise taxes. But not to do so will simply pass the problem onto our children, and burden them with an even bigger mountain of debt. We need to start paying for what we get. And especially now, as we launch huge new spending programs for health care, education, infrastructure and banks, we need to shell out for what we are getting.