Cash-strapped politicians are more willing to play Robin Hood than at any time in a generation. Tax rates on the rich may soon hit levels not seen since the 1980s.
The wealthy, alas, are not easy prey. Backed by highly paid lawyers and accountants, no other group is better able to run circles around the taxman. As a result, America’s politicians may get less cash than they bargained for and more economic distortions.
There are many easier and less disruptive ways to get the cash.
Of course, the temptation to launch a direct strike on the rich is understandable. The past three decades have been very good to the affluent. The top 1 percent of earners now account for 19 percent of America’s income, up from 9 percent in 1980. This elite group has also been quiescent, dutifully paying 40 percent of all income tax, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.
It has been many years since the rich had a powerful incentive to test the limits of the tax code. The top rate of income tax has fallen with only minor interruptions since its vertiginous peak of 92 percent in 1953. But a foretaste of what might be expected was offered by Maryland’s ill-fated creation of a millionaires-tax bracket in 2008.
A year later 1,000 millionaires had disappeared — a third of the total — and revenues from this group had fallen by $100 million. Some may have left the state while others may have found ingenious ways to reduce their reported income.