Another day, another study showing how an unfair tax system is helping widen the gap between the rich and the rest. It’s a US study this time, which finds that the biggest reason for widening wealth gaps 1991-2006 is the capital gains and dividends going to the top 1%.
These kind of windfalls are taxed at only 20% or so, whereas Americans who get their income from salaries can be paying 39%. It’s strikingly unfair, and has been for a long time.
Of course in New Zealand, as a rule you don’t pay tax on capital gains at all, so our system is even more extraordinarily unfair. It also means that whatever figures we have for wealth gains by the top 1% will be massively understated, since we don’t collect data on their capital gains.
The study’s also interesting as it’s another rebuttal to the idea that widening income gaps are caused by things beyond our control: impersonal, global forces like free trade, or the way that technology makes some jobs redundant and others more valuable, or the increasing premium for education.
This study builds on a lot of recent work showing that that’s not so. Take the education story – the idea that inequality widens because people with degrees earn more. It’s a seductive theory, because fixing it sounds so easy, relatively speaking. Just get more people to get degrees: job done.
But if in fact the main problem – as it clearly is in the US, at least – is the profits going to the top 1%, education is not the problem (or the answer). The top 1% are not better educated than the rest of the top third, say, of your average country. This is not about ‘returns to education’, as people like to call it.
Instead, it’s about really difficult but political – not impersonal – choices, about how the tax system treats different classes of people differently. And that’s what needs to be solved.