The Undeserving One Percent?

Reading some economists, it might seem that the answer to all current problems is to tax the richest 1% and redistribute to everyone else. But if governments tax their rich more, they should do it with the aim of improving access and opportunity for all, rather than as a punitive measure to rectify some imagined wrong.

CHICAGO – It is amazing how the “one percent” epithet, a reference to the top 1% of earners, has caught on in the United States and elsewhere in the developed world. In the United States, this 1% includes all those with a 2006 household income of at least $386,000. In the popular narrative, the 1% is thickly populated with unscrupulous corporate titans, greedy bankers, and insider-trading hedge-fund managers. Reading some progressive economists, it might seem that the answer to all of America’s current problems is to tax the 1% and redistribute to everyone else.

Of course, underlying this narrative is the view that this income is ill-gotten, made possible by Bush-era tax cuts, the broken corporate governance system, and the conflict-of-interest-ridden financial system. The 1% are not people who have earned money the hard way by making real things, so there is no harm in taking it away from them.

Clearly, this caricature is based on some truth. For instance, corporations, especially in the financial sector, reward too many executives richly despite mediocre performance. But apart from tarring too many with the same brush, there is something deeply troubling about this narrative’s reductionism.

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