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I'm rich; tax me more

Congress should let the Bush tax cuts expire for the wealthiest Americans and use the additional tax revenues that are generated to invest in infrastructure and research.

September 20, 2010|By Garrett Gruener

I'm a venture capitalist and an entrepreneur. Over the past three decades, I've made both good and bad investments. I've created successful companies and ones that didn't do so well. Overall, I'm proud that my investments have created jobs and led to some interesting innovations. And I've done well financially; I'm one of the fortunate few who are in the top echelon of American earners.

For nearly the last decade, I've paid income taxes at the lowest rates of my professional career. Before that, I paid at higher rates. And if you want the simple, honest truth, from my perspective as an entrepreneur, the fluctuation didn't affect what I did with my money. None of my investments has ever been motivated by the rate at which I would have to pay personal income tax.

As history demonstrates, modest changes in the tax rate for wealthy taxpayers don't make much of a difference if the goal is to build new companies, drive technological development and stimulate new industries. Almost a decade ago, President George W. Bush and his Republican colleagues in Congress pushed through a massive reduction in marginal tax rates, a reduction that benefitted the wealthy far more than other taxpayers.

We were told the cuts would accelerate business growth and create jobs. Instead, we got nearly a decade of anemic job growth, stagnating wages, declining incomes and high inequality.

The supply-side, trickle-down economic policies of the last decade benefitted people like me, but the wealth didn't trickle down. So while we did quite well, people who live from paycheck to paycheck didn't.

When inequality gets too far out of balance, as it did over the course of the last decade, the wealthy end up saving too much while members of the middle class can't afford to spend much unless they borrow excessively. Eventually, the economy stalls for lack of demand, and we see the kind of deflationary spiral we find ourselves in now. I believe it is no coincidence that the two highest peaks in American income inequality came in 1929 and 2008, and that the following years were marked by low economic activity and significant unemployment.

What American businesspeople know, and have known since Henry Ford insisted that his employees be able to afford to buy the cars they made, is that a thriving economy doesn't just need investors; it needs people who can buy the goods and services businesses create. For the overall economy to do well, everyday Americans have to do well.

Now that the Bush tax cuts are about to expire, Republicans are again arguing that taxes should remain low for the wealthy. The idea is that this will spur people like me to put more capital to work and start more ventures, which will create new jobs, power the economy and ultimately produce more tax revenues. It's a beguiling theory, but it's one that hasn't worked before and won't work now.

Instead, Congress should let the Bush tax cuts expire for the wealthiest Americans and use the additional tax revenues that are generated to invest in infrastructure and research. "Invest" is the right word. Putting money into infrastructure — such as roads, bridges, broadband, the smart grid and public transit — as well as carefully chosen research initiatives provides a foundation for future growth. As important, it puts funds in the hands of those who will spend them, generating demand that will pull us out of our economic crisis and toward a new cycle of growth.

No one particularly enjoys paying taxes, but one lesson we should have learned by now is that for the good of the country, we need to tax people like me more. At a minimum, we need to return to the tax rates of the Clinton era, when the economy performed far better. Simply taxing the wealthiest 2% of Americans at the same rates they were taxed before the Bush tax cuts could reduce the national deficit by $700 billion over the next 10 years. Remember, paying slightly more in personal income taxes won't change my investment choices at all, and I don't think a higher tax rate will change the investment decisions of most other high earners.

What will change my investment decisions is if I see an economy doing better, one in which there is demand for the goods and services my investments produce. I am far more likely to invest if I see a country laying the foundation for future growth. In order to get there, we first need to let the Bush-era tax cuts for the upper 2% lapse. It is time to tax me more.

Garrett Gruener is the founder of Ask.com, chief executive of Nanomix, the co-founder and director of the venture capital firm Alta Partners and a member of the advisory board at NDN, a center-left think tank in Washington.

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