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Why a global wealth tax would help address inequality


The distribution of income and wealth is one of the most controversial issues of the day. History tells us that there are powerful economic forces pushing in every direction – towards greater equality, and away from it. Which prevail will depend on the policies we choose.


America is a case in point. Here is a country that was conceived as the antithesis of the patrimonial societies of old Europe. Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th century historian, saw America as the place where land was so plentiful that everyone could afford property and a democracy of equal citizens could flourish. Until the First World War, the concentration of wealth in the hands of the rich was far less extreme in the US than in Europe. In the 20th century, however, the situation was reversed.


Between 1914 and 1945 European wealth inequalities were wiped out by war, inflation, nationalisation and taxation. After that, European countries set up institutions which – for all their faults – are structurally more egalitarian and inclusive than those of the US.


Ironically, many of these institutions drew inspiration from America. From the 1930s to the early 1980s, for example, Britain maintained a balanced distribution of income by hitting what were deemed to be indecently high incomes with very high tax rates. But confiscatory income tax was in fact an American invention – pioneered in the interwar years at a time when that country was determined to avoid the disfiguring inequalities of class-ridden Europe. The American experiment with high tax did not hurt growth, which was higher at the time than it has been since the 1980s. It is an idea that deserves to be revived, especially in the country that first thought of it.


The US was also first to develop mass schooling, with nearly universal literacy – among white men, at any rate – in the early 19th century, an accomplishment that took Europe almost another 100 years. But again, it is Europe that is now more inclusive. True, the US has produced many of the world’s outstanding universities, but Europe has done better at producing solid middle-ranking ones. According to the Shanghai ranking, 53 of the 100 best universities in the world are in the US, and 31 in Europe. Look instead at the top 500 universities, however, and the order is reversed: 202 in Europe against 150 in the US.

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