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George McGovern: On Taxing & Redistributing Income

In each postwar recession, demands have arisen to stimulate the economy through corporate tax reductions. These have taken the form not of overt tax reductions but of covert rate reductions in the form of increased depreciation allowances and special devices such as the investment tax credit. Such devices transfer profits from the taxable category to the untaxable category. In the process, the corporate income tax is gradually being abolished.

Because of steady reductions in the taxable base over the past twenty years, the effective corporation income tax rate has been cut in half. There is a real question about how much farther we can go.

The time has come to end the dismantling of the corporation income tax and to re-establish a fair balance between personal and corporate income tax collections. As a result, I have opposed the new depreciation guidelines and the investment tax credit. Special loopholes, such as percentage depletion, need not be phased out, but a broad balance also needs to be established between taxable and untaxable earnings of corporations. As it is, we have tipped that balance too far in the direction of untaxable earnings.

I propose that the actual corporation income tax be returned to its 1960 level by the elimination of the special loopholes that have been opened since then. (About two-thirds of the gap between the present level and the 1960 level results from Nixon Administration cuts in the last year.)

This reform of the corporation income tax would raise approximately $9 billion in the current fiscal year and about $17 billion in fiscal 1973 (based on Administration estimates of increased corporate activity).

This proposal for increasing the corporation income tax rate does not mean reduced government assistance to business. If the entire McGovern economic program were to be applied, there would be more stimulus to business than is available from the tax privileges now in effect. This program includes an immediate $10 billion fiscal stimulus to create new jobs and use underutilized capacity, economic conversion from a war to a peace economy with the extensive use of government contracting for specific purposes, and the Minimum Income Grant, discussed below, which would greatly stimulate consumer purchases. Nothing spurs profits like a strong full employment economy, which has the highest priority in my economic program.

In short, our corporations must be healthy and growing if our economy is to prosper. But we have a wider range of tools at our disposal than perpetual reductions in the corporation income tax.

Estate and gift taxation

Most Americans subscribe to a fundamental belief of our Founding Fathers that we should be allowed to keep a fair proportion of what we earn but should not be allowed to inherit great wealth. Yet, in practice, the loopholes in our gift and inheritance taxes are much greater than those in our income taxes. Just 9 percent of all families own 50 percent of all private assets. More than a quarter of all private assets are owned by less than I percent of the population. Although some of these fortunes are based on earned income, most are based on inherited wealth.

Estate and gift tax rates are high. But actual rates are a tiny fraction of the theoretical rates.

Estate and gift taxation should be reformed in the same manner as the income tax. Instead of proceeding to close loopholes one by one, a whole new system needs to be constructed.

Gift and inheritance taxes should shift from a tax on the estate or giver to a lifetime cumulative tax on the recipient. This shift would make it possible to prevent tax avoidance and would be more fair, because it would regard the money received as income to the recipient, which it is.

The cumulative lifetime tax on recipients should take the following form: A base amount would be exempt from taxation—this amount is now set by the government at $60,000. Then a progressive tax would be levied, reaching an upper limit of 77 percent—the current statutory ceiling—on an estate of $500,000 or more. The base exemption should be increased when the estate includes a wholly owned proprietorship.

While it is impossible to calculate the exact amount of such revenues resulting from this proposal, a conservative estimate would indicate the doubling of present tax receipts from estate and gift taxes. That would mean additional tax revenues of $4 billion in the present fiscal year and $5 billion in fiscal 1973.

State and local taxes

While the federal tax system is generally progressive, with room for improvement, the state and local tax systems are far less progressive and do not respond as directly to changes of income of taxpayers. It is well known that there has been excessive reliance on the property tax.

The property tax revolt may be a major issue in the coming months. The federal government may have to step in to allow for a reduction of property taxes used to support education—perhaps their complete removal. As I indicated in July, 1971, in my proposals on revenue sharing, the states should be given the incentive to raise more of their revenues from progressive income taxes. In addition, the federal government should take over at least a third of the total bill for primary and secondary education. Funds should be distributed to school districts in line with an equalization formula as is outlined in my revenue sharing proposals.

It has been suggested that a value added tax, which in effect is a national sales tax, should be used either as a method of increasing federal tax revenues or as a method of reducing or eliminating the property tax or both. I disagree. In the first case, we should increase individual and corporation taxation, as indicated, rather than resort to the national sales tax. In the second case, a shift to the value added tax would represent a retreat from the far sounder revenue sharing approach. In addition, while the federal government should assume a greater share of the cost of education, certain local services are associated with the ownership of property, and there is thus a justification for some property taxation. Also, as mentioned above, the property tax can be cut by a shift to more progressive forms of taxation by the states.

In any case, the value added tax or national sales tax is against the interest of middle- and low-income people. It is a regressive tax on consumption, which cannot, of course, be reduced beyond a certain point necessary to ensure a decent life. And it represents a backdoor method of increasing individual taxes just after a reduction in taxation on individual incomes has been enacted.

Conclusion

The federal tax system is basically sound, although it has been riddled with special privileges for the rich. We should move now to establish a fair tax system for all Americans.

The reforms of the federal tax system relating to individual and corporation income taxes and to estate and gift taxes would result in additional revenues of about $18 billion this fiscal year and $28 billion in fiscal 1973. This amounts to an additional $140 in federal income for every man, woman, and child in the United States. Depending on how these additional revenues were applied, they could bring about the reduction or elimination of the local property tax for education; be spent on other urgent national needs such as rebuilding our cities, pollution control, adequate nutrition for all; or could go a long way toward financing the Minimum Income Grant program, discussed below.

II

Redistribution of Income

The need

The present tax system contains inequities because it does not levy a correspondingly fair burden on all taxpayers. While the rich benefit from the tax system, middle-income groups and low-income groups including the poor do not receive such benefits. Those with medium incomes find they are paying their taxes but not receiving either the kind of tax breaks given to the wealthy or the kind of public assistance payments made to the poor. The poor find that, as soon as they go to work, they are subject to extremely high rates of income taxation because of their sudden sharp reduction of public aid when they earn their first dollar. The net result is mounting frustration for those in the middle and a future of poverty for those who are heavily penalized when they seek to work their way out of welfare dependence.

There are other weaknesses of the public assistance or welfare program. Many people in need are not covered; family groups are penalized; benefits are insufficient; migration from one state to another is encouraged; extensive controls are applied; and it is possible for taxpayers to be worse off than those receiving public assistance.

A number of welfare proposals are now pending before the Congress. I sponsored the proposals of the National Welfare Rights Organization in an effort to ensure that benefits will take into account real needs. Naturally these proposals deal only with those on public assistance—not medium-income taxpayers. Some of them represent major improvements in the present system. But none of them offers the broad application of the Minimum Income Grant described below. Even the negative income tax proposal has the defect of creating or, more properly, maintaining a two-class society—those who pay and those who receive.

The Minimum Income Grant

I propose that every man, woman, and child receive from the federal government an annual payment. This payment would not vary in accordance with the wealth of the recipient. For those on public assistance, this income grant would replace the welfare system. It has also been suggested that the national income grant could replace certain social security benefits.

There are a number of methods by which this proposal could be implemented. Some are discussed here. These methods require full examination by the best economic talent available, and the plan chosen must have the support of the President, if it is to have any chance of adoption. For these reasons, the present proposal is not designed for immediate legislative action. Instead, it represents a pledge that, if elected, I would prepare a detailed plan and submit it to the Congress.

One proposal calls for the same payment to be made to all Americans. This is the credit income tax idea, proposed by Professor Earl Rolph, and more recently associated with the name of Professor James Tobin of Yale, immediate past president of the American Economic Association, former member of the Council of Economic Advisors, and a member of the National Economic Advisory Group of the McGovern Campaign. Using a 1966 base, Professor Tobin suggests a payment of $750 per person. At the present time, a payment of almost $1,000 per person would be required. This would amount to $4,000 for a family of four—just about the official poverty level boundary.

Another formula has been suggested by Leonard Greene, president of the Safelight Instrument Corporation of New York. Under his “Fair Share” plan, each adult would receive $900 a year and each child would receive $400. This would amount to $2,600 for a family of four.

It should be stressed that neither of these proposals relates to the size of the family unit; the payments are made on an individual basis. Thus, there would be no incentive for a family to break up in order to receive higher total benefits.

A third formula would involve payments according to the family group. Joseph Pechman of the Brookings Institution has shown that “the relative incomes that would provide roughly equivalent standards of living appear to be in the ratio of 75:100:25 for single, married, and dependent persons, respectively.” The payment of the Minimum Income Grant could be made according to such a formula. In this case, adequate account would be taken of those who receive welfare and who live alone.

Financing the Minimum Income Grant

As redistribution of income, the Minimum Income Grant would represent no additional cost to the Treasury. Funds to finance the grant would be expected to come from those above a designated break-even income and would take the form of additional taxes. If the break-even income for a family of four were set at $12,000, about 20 percent of federal taxpayers would experience a tax increase, while about 80 percent would be able to keep all or part of the grant.

It is expected that those below the poverty line would keep all of the grant, while those between the poverty line and the break-even point would keep a gradually decreasing amount as their incomes rose. The loss of grant benefits would thus be sufficiently gradual as not to discourage those on welfare from seeking a job (in fact, it would encourage them to seek work) and would provide a significant income supplement to the millions of Americans in the medium-income range. Thus, for example, a family of four with its own income of $8,000 would be able to retain an additional $2,000 of the Minimum Income Grant.

Professor Tobin’s explanation of the credit income tax suggests that the grant would be tax-free but that each person would be required to pay a uniform income tax to the Federal Treasury (a 33.3 percent tax is suggested with the $750 payment). Although this might seem to be a regressive tax, the tax credit resulting from the grant would cause it to have a progressive effect. While taxes would be much higher for the wealthy, others would receive significant tax relief. Professor Tobin uses the example of a family of four with an income of less than $9,000 that would pay no taxes at all.

This credit income tax proposal would imply a redistribution of income of some $14.1 billion from those above the poverty line to those below it. The redistribution from those above the break-even income line to those below it but still above the poverty line would amount to $29 billion. These figures demonstrate that while the Minimum Income Grant would represent a total reform of the present welfare system, it would actually provide more money to medium-income taxpayers than it would to the poor.

Leonard Greene’s Fair Share would be financed by the present progressive tax system plus a 20 percent tax surcharge on all taxpayers. The Minimum Income Grant, according to Mr. Greene, would not be tax exempt. This proposal distributes the cost over a greater number of taxpayers but the burden on any one of them is lower than under the credit income tax formula.

It would not be necessary to finance all of the Minimum Income Grant by tax increases. The billions of dollars saved in welfare benefits and the cumbersome administration of the welfare system—a total since it began of $9.6 billion or $1.4 billion in fiscal 1970—could be allocated to the grant. It should be noted that this procedure would represent a major saving for states and localities which would not be required to finance the welfare system and could use the resulting funds—an estimated $5 billion—to lower property taxes. This step would represent additional income assistance to medium-income taxpayers. (To the extent that social security payments were replaced by the grant, social security funds could be used to finance the system.)

In addition, the revenues resulting from the kind of tax reform proposed earlier ($28 billion in fiscal 1973) could be applied to the grant.

Finally, the justification for the personal exemption on individual tax returns would be removed by the adoption of the Minimum Income Grant. If the personal exemption were removed, the federal government would receive $63.6 billion in additional tax revenues. These funds could also be applied to the grant.

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