WASHINGTON — When somebody asked Willie Sutton, the famous thief, why he robbed banks, he had a good answer: "That's where the money is." The same statement could explain why more state and federal politicians seem to be targeting wealthy Americans, prosperous service industries and skilled professions for many of the new taxes everyone expects in the new decade.
During the 1980s, wealth in the United States was redistributed upward. The middle class wound up with marginal gains on federal income taxes but higher state taxes, much-increased Social Security levies and a collateral squeeze on everything from health insurance to tuition. Meanwhile, the number of millionaires tripled, stock markets soared, financiers got rich on everything from junk bonds to now-defunct savings-and-loan institutions and federal data show the top 1% of Americans banking their highest share of national income since the pre-Depression Roaring '20s. This disparity could be the key to tax policy in the 1990s.
In Washington, there have only been hints, such as the Democratic leaders' insistence, at the continuing Budget Summit, that new taxes should meet criteria of progressivity and fairness. That could mean an increase in the income-tax rate--from 28% to 33%--paid by the top 1% of Americans.
At the state and municipal levels, however, evidence is more tangible. New Jersey's newly elected Democratic governor, James J. Florio, has pushed through legislation to meet the budget crisis by doubling the highest state income-tax bracket from 3.5% to 7%. In California, scene of another mushrooming deficit, key Democratic committee chairmen in the Legislature want to boost the top income-tax rate from 9.3% to 11%. Meanwhile, fiscal discussions in New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut have been exploring (but generally rejecting ) some related new directions--establishing or enlarging taxes on lucrative services such as advertising, management consulting and public relations.
For several years, voters across the United States have been willing to accept increased alcohol and tobacco taxes if new revenues are needed. But now they are adding higher federal income taxes for the rich to the list. Gallup polls for the Times Mirror Co. have shown large majorities favoring a tax increase on incomes of more than $80,000 a year, and other surveys are underscoring the point. A recent NBC News poll found a 68% to 28% majority of Americans prefer a hike for top federal income taxpayers over a gasoline tax increase.
A reverse law of fiscal gravity could be coming into play: What has gone down has to go part way back up. During the 1980s, the top federal tax rate on unearned income (interest, rent and dividends) came down from 70% to 28%--a gold mine for the million or so richest Americans who get a large share of their income this way. Partly for this reason, and partly because of a tripling stock market, the richest 1% of Americans took a steadily larger slice of the national income and wealth pies during the Reagan era--even while the inflation-adjusted median family income remained disturbingly stagnant.
At the top, enrichment has been stunning. Cautious computations by the Congressional Budget Office show the share of national income going to the top 1% of Americans--approximately 1 million families--jumped from about 9% in 1981 to almost 12% projected for 1990. On the other hand, analyses by the Brookings Institution found the same group's share of reported income soaring from 8.1% in 1981 to a stunning 14.7% in 1986. That's a gain of over $100 billion a year. The 400 richest Americans alone, as measured by Forbes Magazine, charted an even bigger advance. While decay rotted the inner cities and tumbleweed blew down the streets of boarded-up prairie farm towns, the Forbes 400 tripled their total net worth from $92 billion in 1982 to $270 billion in 1989.
Back in 1980, there were about 500,000 U.S millionaires. By 1987, however, one estimate pegged the number at 1.2 million.
Historically, the United States has seen only two similar blow-outs--during the Gilded Age of the late 19th Century when the number of millionaires jumped from perhaps 100 at the beginning of the Civil War to 4,000 in 1892, and during the Roaring '20s. From 1914 to 1929, as the number of U.S. millionaires quintupled from 5,000 to 25,000, the nation also got its first billionaires--Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller.
In both these periods, economic policies were as conservative and as favorable to the upper-brackets as during the Reagan-Bush years. Between 1921 and 1929, the top income-tax rate came down from 73% to 25%, providing roughly the same spur to the minting of millionaires that it did in the 1980s.