What to the rich do with their money?

Charlie brought up the question of what the rich do with their money in response to the theory of trickle-down economics. This seems timely, as one of my coworkers and I talked trickle-down just yesterday.The theory is often maligned, and usually by people who don’t understand it very well. But frankly its proponents don’t always understand it either.

The classic justification is that if you tax the rich less, they’ll use that savings to buy things like boats and luxury cars, creating jobs for people who build and sell things like boats and luxury cars, and for the suppliers of those companies. And the argument is that this economic activity spreads the wealth better than the government taxing and redistributing wealth, due to government overhead.

At least that’s the simple, back-of-a-napkin explanation you’re likely to hear from a conservative activist when you ask the question. It’s the one I’ve always heard.

The theory is more complicated than that. For most of the 20th century, the fabulously rich were taxed at extremely high rates–70 or even 90 percent. The economist Arthur Laffer argued that if one taxed the rich at a lower rate, then tax revenue would actually increase–the reason being that someone who had the ability to make $10 million probably also had the ability to make more than that, but would probably be more willing to try to make more if the government weren’t taking 90% of the spoils.

Ronald Reagan lowered that upper tax rate to 50%. And sure enough, revenue went up, because 50% of $20 million is more than 90% of $10 million. So both the entrepreneur and the government won.

But contrary to what the modern Republican party seems to think, Laffer didn’t argue that the less you taxed, the more revenue would increase. Tax revenue is a more like a bell curve–tax at 0%, and revenue will be $0. Likewise, take 100%, and revenue will be $0, because nobody will work (or they’ll hide it if they do). The question is what percentage puts tax revenue at the top of the bell curve. I believe that history says it’s somewhere around 38%. Ironically, it was a Democrat who demonstrated that rate. (Hint: it wasn’t Jimmy Carter.)

And when Democrats malign trickle-down economics, they ignore one important fact: When Reagan cut taxes, revenue did rise–a lot. And when Bush I cut them further, it rose even more. The problem was that spending in Washington outpaced revenue growth during the 1980s and most of the 1990s. In the waning years of Clinton’s presidency, revenue finally caught up with spending, and for two years in a row there was actually a small surplus.

And in all fairness to Bush II, that’s been the biggest problem with his economic policy the past 8 years. Revenue went down slightly when he cut the highest tax bracket. But the bigger problem is that Washington spending increased beyond Reagan levels. Had spending stayed in check, we might still be talking about small deficits and occasional surpluses. Instead, he kept taxes low while signing budgets that made Clinton look like a fiscal conservative.

But that’s enough about trickle-down economics. Let’s talk about the rich.

A little over three years ago, I was walking out to my car after work when a couple of well-dressed men approached me and asked for a jump start. I pulled my Honda up to their rental luxury car, we hooked up the cables, got the car started, and they went on their way.

I now believe one of the men that day was the man who soon became the CEO of that company. I won’t name him or the company. Perhaps he was interviewing for the job that day. Not long afterward, he got the job, and as a result of one of his earliest decisions, I lost mine.

So I did a favor for a guy who made $4.81 million last year, and the thanks I got was unemployment.

The soak-the-rich attitude comes from stories like that. When we think of the rich, we think of CEOs who take over large, failing companies, get rid of lots of people, bring in their people, and in the end the companies don’t really get much better, but in the meantime they pocket a few million dollars every year. And when they lose their jobs, they get a golden parachute of a few million more.

But the majority of the rich aren’t like that. They’re more like the owner of the next company I worked for. It was a small consulting company, but it was smaller when he bought it. He bought it during a dark time in its history, brought in some good people, and together they worked hard to make the company profitable again.

In 2006, not long after I met him, he sold the company to a much larger competitor and turned a nice profit for himself. They only retained him for a short time, but he’s not hurting for money. Shrewdly, he didn’t sell them the building, so the company is still paying him rent every month.

Nobody knows what his future plans are, but some people who know him better than I do believe he’ll start another company at some point.

Read books like The Millionaire Next Door, and you’ll find the majority of millionaires are unassuming people who park their Ford Crown Victorias in front of ranch-style houses every night. They’re often self-employed, and usually made their first million by saving a lot and investing in themselves.

I have little respect for the first CEO I talked about, because he has his job mostly because he looks and acts the part. He dresses well, looks like a movie star, and when he talks, he can convince you he cares. But let’s talk qualifications. During his first year on the job, his company’s shares were worth about $1.20 apiece. Now they’re worth 42 cents per share and the company is $1 billion deeper in debt. That’s not all his fault, but it’s hard to argue that he’s done much to turn the company around, and it’s even harder to argue that those results are worth $4.81 million a year. I would think they could outsource his job to India and get comparable results for $100,000 a year and bank the savings.

At least they’d save more than they saved by outsourcing people like me.

I have a lot of respect for my other former employer, because he took a bad situation and turned it around, and he got the job because he bought a company with his own money. He invested his time, energy, and money in it, and besides making himself wealthier, he also created jobs–about 200 of them at his company’s peak–including one for a 31-year-old newlywed who was down on his luck and had worked for two other employers that same year.

The problem with trying to use tax policy to soak people like the first guy I mentioned is that it’s very difficult to do without also hurting the second one I mentioned. And if tax policy hurts him, he might as well just stay retired and play golf or whatever he enjoys doing, rather than starting a new company and making some new jobs for people.

And frankly I’m not sure what we gain when we make people like the first guy pay. I guess we feel better for a while. But the main thing we do is motivate him to hire the very best accountants and lawyers to find and exploit every loophole they can. So he still keeps most of his money, the government gets less than it projected, and the masses are blissfully ignorant, thinking they got some fat cat to finally give up his fair share, whatever that means, but they never see any tangible benefit.

Outlandish CEO pay and incestuous boards of directors loaded with conflicts of interest that perpetuate these outlandish compensation packages really are a separate issue, and the tax code isn’t the appropriate place to try to fix it.

But back to that tax code, and the second guy–the one worth worrying about. For what it’s worth, neither of the two major presidential candidates is likely to do anything that would singlehandedly persuade the second guy to stay retired. A return to Reagan’s or Carter’s income tax levels might, but neither candidate is proposing something like that. The difference between the two is much narrower than either of them want the rest of us to think, and their political rhetoric reflects that.

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