Q & A with Economist Charles K. Wilber

Notre Dame economist Charles K. Wilber will be taking readers' questions on his article "Awakening the Giant" this Thursday October 14. To pose a question simply post to the article comments' boxes. Here is Wilber on why the government should consider raising taxes--and why that idea is so fiercely resisted:

Two arguments are typically made against raising taxes: first, that citizens are already overburdened and second, that more taxes will reduce incentives to save, invest and work. In fact the available empirical evidence supports neither contention. The United States and Japan have the lowest rate of taxes (federal, state and local) out of income (G.D.P.) among the major industrial countries: 27 percent and 28 percent compared with an average of 45 percent for Europe. The excessive-burden argument against tax increases is therefore unpersuasive.


What about the argument that high taxes work as a disincentive that slows economic growth? When cross-country studies are used to measure economic growth for industrial countries in comparison with tax rates, there is no undisputed relationship. Some high-tax countries grow rapidly; others grow slowly. It is the same for (relatively) low-tax countries. Econometric attempts to tease out a relationship have led to mixed results with no clear-cut outcomes. Some years back Robert Barro of Harvard University found a relationship, and a few others have done so after him; but many studies find no relationship. Empirical studies appear to indicate that higher taxes do have a small effect on investment, but the results are murkier in terms of any effect on savings and work.


From my viewpoint as an economist concerned for the common good, the Reagan and Bush tax cuts, coupled with dramatic increases in military expenditures, have led not only to persistent structural federal deficits but also to a record widening of the income and wealth distribution between the rich and the poor. In the near future, tax increases will be needed to help close that structural deficit. Increasing the progressivity of the federal income tax is an important step, but other options ought also to be part of the political dialogue.

First is the adoption of a value added tax system for the United States. An exemption for basics (food, housing, medical care) would reduce the regressivity inherent in any such excise tax. The overall level of income taxes could be reduced (while increasing progressivity) as an incentive to accept a VAT. It would be easy to share the VAT revenues with states and local governments to carry out needed programs. An added advantage is that the tax would fall on consumption rather than income, thereby providing some incentive for savings.

Second, increased taxation of gasoline could raise additional revenues and encourage conservation in its use. U.S. gasoline prices are still among the lowest among industrial countries and, in real terms, not significantly higher than they were before the 1973 oil crisis. The following inflation-adjusted gasoline prices are on an annual basis: 1958 $2.24; 1968 $2.11; 1978 $2.16; 1988 $1.75; 1998 $1.35; 2008 $3.23; and 2009 $2.28. If additional gas taxes were used partly to subsidize public transportation, it could be of real help to the poor.

Again, you can pose questions to Professor Wilber here.

Tim Reidy

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
8 years 3 months ago
Your last sentence, "If additional gas taxes were used partly to subsidize public transportation, it could be of real help to the poor.", belies the fact that cars and gasoline to run them are a necessity to the poor right now to get to their jobs. The poor and near-poor (most of us)would not be helped by increased gas taxes. let's try figuring out some other way to fund the sorely needed public transportation system. 
Stanley Kopacz
8 years 3 months ago
Gas taxes would provide an incentive to car pool.  Low income people can carpool as well as anybody.  Traffic would be reduced.  Even the automobile-based transportation system would improve.  To be honest, I get 52 mpg AND carpool to work so gas prices and gas taxes don't personally affect me very much.  Actually, the last time the gas prices went through the roof, commuting was relatively nice.  A lot of the big, obnoxious SUV's disappeared, too.  I'm for it.
Tom Maher
8 years 3 months ago
Charles K, Wilbur comment that "The excess-burdern argument against tax increases is therefore unpersuasive " is very glib nonsense.  Arguments against tax increases especially during a recession are not so easily dismissed.   And politically a majority of Americans if the polls are to be beleived including many Democrats want nothing to do with "progressive tax increases".  The Obama stimulus package has done nothing to help the economy.  The Obama 700 billion stimulus package had no measureable effect on th eeconomy and unlike the WPA of th e1930s there is nothing to show for this hugh expenditure.  The money was a waste.  So citizens are not inclined at all to have tax increases of any kind which will only create further waste of money in government hands.   The government is a very poor manager of the people's tax revenues.  It is far more effective to allow taxpayers and use their own money and therby keep the funds in the private sector where real job creation , so badly needed, is done.

All of Charles K. Wilbur's  taxing ideas such as inreasing taxes on income and oil and new VAT  taxes are wishful thinking.  Voters across America if the polls are to be believed are about to overwhelmingly reject all tax increases and the ynew government programs they would fund such as Obama's healthcare or cap and trade.  The economic visions of the 1930s or 1960s are just not politically viable anymore in the 21st century. 
Stanley Kopacz
8 years 3 months ago
"Many, or even most people would not be able to carpool, even if they wanted to"

Not true.  I'm assuming nothing.  We are just not able to generate cooperative behaviour anymore due to years of anti-community thinking.  It is a matter of setting up community organizations or internet sites to connect people to support this need.  We are so atomized anymore, we can't figure out how to work together.  The rising feudal aristocracy wants it that way, unable to connect, the meat for their predatory practices.

Or just give low income people a gas subsidy.

At the very least, a tax to pay off the war debt is only fair.  If someone drives around in one of those ridiculous faux hummers and wastes gasoline, they should pay for the wars that were fought to keep the gas flowing.

It's only a matter of time before the fossil fuels run out.  THe suburbs will eventually disappear by necessity for a more energy efficient ways of life, concentrated in small communities linked by energy efficient rail.  WHen I was a kid in the 50's, I could walk to stores and movie theaters and didn't even need a car.  Now I have to drive everywhere.  I would be glad to ride a bike, but some yahoo in a two-ton vehicle would eventually wipe me out.  Our present "system" grew thoughtlessly on the basis of cheap, abundant energy which is going away.  Let's start getting on with it.


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