Why Tax the Rich

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FEBRUARY 26, 2002 2/26/02 5:38 PM

Book Review

Why Tax the Rich? Efficiency, Equity, and Progressive Taxation Reuven S. Avi-Yonah†

Does Atlas Shrug? The Economic Consequences of Taxing the Rich. Edited by Joel B. Slemrod.∗ Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. Pp. 524. $57.95. In Greek mythology, Atlas was a giant who carried the world on his shoulders. In Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, Atlas represents the “ prime movers” —the talented few who bear the weight of the world’s economy.1 In the novel, the prime movers go on strike against the oppressive burden of excessive regulation and taxation, leaving the world in disarray and demonstrating how indispensable they are to the rest of us (the “ second handers” ). Rand wrote in a world in which the top marginal federal income tax rate in the United States was 91% (beginning at taxable income of $400,000).2 This is an unimaginably high rate by today’s standards, when the dominant view in Washington is that a marginal rate of 39.6% (the top

† Irwin I. Cohn Professor of Law, University of Michigan. I would like to thank Yossi Edrey, Allen Graubard, David Hasen, Judy Herman, Don Herzog, Jim Hines, Bob Kuttner, Doron Lamm, Jeff Lehman, Kyle Logue, Dan Shaviro, Joel Slemrod, Dennis Ventry, and Larry Zelenak for their extremely helpful suggestions. All errors are mine. * Paul W. McCracken Collegiate Professor of Business Economics and Public Policy, University of Michigan. 1. AYN RAND, ATLAS SHRUGGED (1957). 2. Joel B. Slemrod, The Economics of Taxing the Rich, in DOES ATLAS SHRUG? THE ECONOMIC CONSEQUENCES OF TAXING THE RICH 3, 3 (Joel B. Slemrod ed., 2000) [hereinafter DOES ATLAS SHRUG?].

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The Yale Law Journal

[Vol. 111: 1391

rate from 1993 to 2001) is too high.3 The key turning point in the process of abandoning high marginal tax rates occurred in the presidency of Ronald Reagan. When Reagan became President in 1981, the top marginal federal income tax rate was 70%; when he left office in 1989, the top rate was 28%.4 The reduction of marginal tax rates in the Reagan years was driven by a new policy consensus that still persists today. That consensus is that high marginal tax rates on the rich come with an unaffordably high price for the U.S. economy in the form of reduced incentives for the rich to work and to save, and increased incentives to engage in socially wasteful tax planning. And yet 1957, when Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged and the top income tax rate was 91%, falls in the middle of the period from 1951 through 1963. Those were the golden years of the U.S. economy, in which the average annual rate of productivity growth was 3.1% (compared with about 1.5% after 1981).5 Of course, the growth might have been even faster had the marginal tax rates been lower, but the coincidence of high rates and high productivity raises challenging questions for those who believe that high marginal tax rates carry an unacceptable cost.6 Thus, the question of whether high marginal tax rates come with an unaffordably high cost to the U.S. economy remains unsettled. Does Atlas Shrug?, a recent collection of papers written mostly by public finance economists and superbly edited by Joel Slemrod, represents the most recent

3. I.R.C. § 1 (1994), amended by Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-16, 115 Stat. 38. The Act reduces the top marginal rate from 39.6% to 35%, phased in gradually over the period 2001 to 2006. For the arguments leading to the enactment of the 2001 Act, see, for example, the testimony of R. Glenn Hubbard, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, before the Joint Economic Committee of Congress: [T]he key to the President’s plan is its focus on reducing marginal tax rates. . . . There is now a large body of evidence that improving marginal incentives . . . is the key to ensuring these investments in our...
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