The Progressive Consumption Tax

As I wrote yesterday, rising income inequality has been largely a consequence of two forces: changes in technology that have extended the reach of the most gifted performers in every arena, and increasingly open competition for the services of those performers. Finger wagging at corporate pay boards will not alter the strength of those forces. Regulatory reforms aimed at promoting better corporate governance are often desirable in their own right, especially in the financial services industry. But such reforms are also unlikely to alter the income growth trends we’ve seen in recent decades.
The good news is that we could pull a few simple policy levers that would greatly reduce the adverse effects of growing income gaps without threatening the benefits that have been made possible by improved technology and increased competition.
The simplest step would be to scrap the current progressive income tax in favor of a much more steeply progressive tax on each household’s consumption. Families would report their taxable income to the IRS (ideally under a tax code that greatly simplifies the calculation of taxable income), and also their annual savings, as many now do for IRAs and other tax-exempt retirement accounts. The difference between those two numbers—income minus savings—is the family’s annual consumption expenditure. That amount, less a large standard deduction—say, $30,000 for a family of four—is the family’s taxable consumption. Rates would start low and would then rise much more steeply than those under the current income tax.
The first part of this series described how growing income disparities have made it more expensive for middle-income families to achieve many basic goals, such as sending their children to a decent school. The second part explained why income inequality has grown so rapidly in recent decades. This final installment describes an opportunity to perform fiscal alchemy. By pulling a simple tax lever, we could reduce the costs of growing income disparities, while at the same time freeing up several trillion dollars of additional resources each year—more than enough to pay down the federal debt and rebuild our crumbling infrastructure—all without requiring painful sacrifices from anyone. This essay is adapted from Robert H. Frank’s recently published book, The Darwin Economy.