“Make the corporations pay!”
It is a slogan that sounds good, and with which I would fully agree, under conditions where “corporations,” or, more accurately, those who control them, were actually paying. But this is not the case in the debate in Canada today where many on the left are falsely proclaiming corporate taxes as an alternative to increasing personal taxes, even on the wealthy, and seem to display little understanding that corporate tax rates have nothing at all to do with inequality socially and are not at all a tax on wealth or the wealthy.
When Thomas Mulcair juxtaposes his “plan” to increase corporate taxes as a “progressive” alternative to Toronto-Centre candidate Linda McQuaig’s previously stated notion that taxes should be increased as well on Canada’s wealthiest individuals, he is fundamentally juxtaposing McQuaig’s plan that might accomplish something to a plan that will accomplish absolutely nothing.
The essential fallacy of mythologizing corporate taxes in the present context lies in the fact that, unless you agree with the U.S. Supreme Court, corporations are not people. By definition, if government taxes a corporation, ultimately some individuals, somewhere, pay the bill. Corporations cannot pay anything, any more than a house you own pays its own property tax. Given that corporations can, will and must extract the money to pay their tax bills any number of ways, from increasing prices, to attempting to force down worker wages and benefits, to finding creative ways to reduce nominal profit (which includes actually increasing CEO salaries or privileges, which are a “cost”), in the absence of a campaign to dramatically increase personal taxes on the managerial and CEO class of corporations or to re-adjust social power relations through the threat of socialization of assets and/or price controls, the net effect of corporate taxes, in terms of income levelling, will often be either zero or regressive.
It sounds radical, and is therefore appealing to centrists who wish to nominally appear radical, but its impact on inequality is essentially non-existent for the very simple reason that inequality is driven by disparities in the incomes that exist between individuals. Inequality is facilitated by corporations and corporate actions, but it is manifested in the difference between people and people alone.
This exact inequality exists within corporations themselves. Corporations are comprised, as a general rule, of workers, managers and upper management. Given the nature of the capitalist economy, the way corporations will seek to lessen the impact of higher taxation will not be at the expense of their CEOs.
It is not corporations who own multiple mansions, live lavish lifestyles or indulge in tremendous decadence, it is wealthy people who do so. The disparity between rich and poor is not between rich and poor companies, but rather between rich people and those living working-class lifestyles or those actually living in poverty.
Taxes on corporations, in isolation, separated from higher tax rates on the wealthy individuals who own, profit from and run the corporations, act as little more than waypoints to collecting taxes on corporate workers or customers.
“Progressive” politicians, New Democrats, Liberals and Democrats alike, like the corporate tax narrative when it suits them precisely because it does not threaten any actual people at all, whether it is Galen Weston or one of his Loblaws cashiers. They can claim to be holding the banner of redistributive justice high. To be defending the mythical “99 percent.”
Yet these taxes can only have an impact on inequality if you assume, barring personal tax increases, that corporations will pass the “costs” of higher taxes along, out of a sense of social justice, to their corporate boardrooms. This is, frankly, a counterintuitive and bizarre assumption for leftists to make.
They will not. They will, as they always do, make their workers pay.
We need to move beyond the false narrative of so-called “corporate taxes” as a solution under capitalism and, instead, to advocate for both a dramatic increase in personal taxes on the wealthy and the upper middle class with a corresponding fight to socialize corporate assets. We need to tie this to an entrenchment of union and workers’ rights and democratization of the economy.
It is time to actually make those who benefit from the corporations pay. By higher taxes on capital gains, by higher income taxes on the wealthy and managerial class, by inheritance taxes, by expanding the legal rights and powers of workers.
By advancing expropriation and radically new ownership models.
Until then, when it comes to understanding how to tackle income inequality and its consequences, it is the pre-by-election Linda McQuaig who was right and it is the desperate-for-power NDP leader Thomas Mulcair who is wrong.
Toward a Maximum Wage
Tackling income inequality through the minimum wage alone is an inadequate way to counter the economy’s anti-egalitarian tendencies. The minimum wage exists because the federal government recognizes the economy undervalues the average worker’s contribution and fails to provide a fair livable wage. Conversely, the economy’s overvaluing a few people’s contribution is also in need of governmental oversight. Since the government believes the economy is not a reliable gauge for determining how little is too little, it cannot assume the “market” is capable of determining how much is too much. Given this it is incumbent on the federal government to implement an income ceiling to eliminate the extreme income disparity between top and average wage earners.
Before dismissing the maximum wage idea outright, consider President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s call for 1942 maximum wage of $25,000 a year (in 2012 dollars $364,000) as a means to fuel economic growth and reduce income inequality. In a recent Le Monde Diplomatique article Sam Pizzigati of the Institute for Policy Studies revealed that two short years after President Roosevelt’s proposal, Congress increased the top tax rate to 94% for individual incomes over $200,000 (in 2012 dollars $2.6 million) The 94¢ tax on every dollar over the $200,000 limit helped initiate the longest period of economic growth for the middle class in U.S. history. This tax rate remained in place until President Lyndon Johnson dropped it to under 70% in the late 1960s. About two decades later President Reagan reduced the rate to 50% and then to 28% in 1988 before it settled at today’s 35% rate. But this tax rate overstates the rich’s tax burden given that most of their income [tax payment] comes from the 15% capital gains tax on profits acquired from buying and selling stocks, bonds and assets. This tax rate is about the same as that for working Americans earning between $50,000 and $75,000 before itemized deductions and exemptions.
Opponents of the maximum wage assert that cutting the top tax rates rather than increasing them will spark revenue and job growth. Their “trickle down” rationale assumes that making the rich richer will create good paying jobs, making working people more prosperous. But the trickle down approach and other piecemeal provisions like the minimum wage, earned income tax credit, and other minimalist economic programs and policies have proven ineffective in reversing the growth in income inequality over the last four decades. The ineffectiveness of such programs and policies is apparent in Emmanuel Saez’s recently released study showing that during the current recession one-percenters captured 93 percent of the income growth in both 2009 and 2010. In real dollar terms this means that the bottom 90% income on average declined $127 while the top 1% income increased $106,000.
One the best and most proficient ways to restart job growth and alleviate poverty and inequality, the imposition of a maximum allowable wage tied to minimum wage and enforced through a progressive income tax. The maximum is set at a specific multiple (maybe twenty five times) of the minimum wage, so that all income over the multiple limit is subject to a 95% to 100% tax. Limiting and linking average and top wage earners in this way will help Americans clearly see that poverty and suffering is necessary for an individual to accumulate wealth.
The fact is that income and wealth inequality impedes economic recovery, and efficiency and stability because it weakens demand for goods and services. By implementing a maximum wage the government could generate billions in revenue that can be invested in health, education, technology and infrastructure maintenance in ways that ensure the economy is sustainable, productive and efficient.
Europeans, especially those dealing with economic austerity measures, are already debating how to enact a maximum wage policy to ameliorate economic calamity. The idea of the maximum wage is also starting to resonate in the United States with a public that is increasingly aware of the destructive and anti-democratic consequences of lopsided disparities in income and wealth. This emerging awareness encourages people to question and challenge the legitimacy of economic values and a political system that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it: “permit necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few.”
Johnny E. Williams is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Trinity College.
- Divided We Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising (doctorlukescookbook.wordpress.com)