So President Hoover floated the idea of significantly raising taxes on the rich to close the budget hole instead. The wealthy didn’t hate the idea, Zalewski said. Paying higher taxes was better for them than having the dollar devalued so significantly that they couldn’t trade it for anything. “An unbalanced budget was the worst thing you could do in national policy during the gold standard era,” Zalewski told me. The Revenue Act of 1932 more than doubled tax rates on the rich—the largest peacetime tax increase in American history. And aside from big increases on the rich, the act included consumption taxes on gasoline and electricity, according to the Tax History Project, a collection of essays about financial history from the non-partisan nonprofit Tax Analysts.
The following year, Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office. He took the country off the gold standard, but saw no reason to lower tax rates since he had a laundry list of social programs he wanted to fund. Instead, he passed the Revenue Act of 1935, which actually raised the top tax rate even higher, to 79 percent. Critics derided this as a “soak the rich” tax. But the country seemed to content to keep the trend going. Between 1935 and 1982, the top tax rate did not dip below 70 percent. Part of this was due to a belief among those in charge that the government had a role in combating extreme wealth. Roosevelt said this in a speech about raising taxes:
People know that vast personal incomes come not only through the effort or ability or luck of those who receive them, but also because of the opportunities for advantage which Government itself contributes. Therefore, the duty rests upon the Government to restrict such incomes by very high taxes.
And that wasn’t an extreme view. For a long time, says Saez, the idea that earning a ton of money was, in some ways vulgar or unfair dictated policy. During World War II, the government even controlled pay increases in the private sector. Even when those controls were lifted, income inequality stayed constant at low inequality. This is a period of income equality referred to by economists as the Great Compression.
It wasn’t until the Reagan era that the politicians in power started to talk up the benefits of wealth accumulation once again. Top tax rates fell, from 70 percent to 50 percent, in 1982, and then to 38.5 percent in 1987. At the same time, the top 0.1 percent of earners’ share of wealth has risen from 7 percent in 1978 to 22 percent in 2012, a level almost as high as in 1929, according to a May paper by Saez and Zucman that tracks wealth inequality in the United States since 1913.
The gap between the wealthiest and everyone else has grown so large that economic experts around the world have listed the issue of one of the main concerns facing the global economy. To reverse the extreme concentration of wealth that has characterized the last few decades, Saez says, changes to the top tax rates would have to be relatively large—bigger than the changes in the Clinton era, which saw the top tax rate grow from 31 percent to 39.6 percent, or those in the Obama era, which saw the top tax rate grow from 35 percent to 39.6 percent. And increases in the top tax rate would have to be accompanied by concrete changes in the tax system so that it’s not as easy for the rich to avoid paying taxes. Saez’s colleague Zucman estimates that 8 percent of the world’s financial wealth is held offshore, costing the US alone $36 billion a year.