The Case for a Billionaire Tax | Taxes | Economic Inequality

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Ending extreme inequality to end poverty has no lack of policy options: from corporate tax reform to investment in health and education, and from raising the minimum wage to ending gender discrimination. This discussion paper aims to put one of these solutions on the agenda: the billionaire tax. A global tax of 1.5% on individual net wealth in excess of $1 billion and spent on basic education and health services in poor countries is politically feasible, sufficient to fund universal access to basic education and healthcare, good for economic growth, ethically justified, and could be a catalyst for change. 
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  OXFAM DISCUSSION PAPERS JANUARY  201 7   www.oxfam.org THE CASE FOR A BILLIONAIRE TAX Pupils in a school in Mukuru informal settlement, Nairobi, 2014. Improving the facilities at schools in Mukuru has meant a significant increase in attendance, particularly for girls. Photo: Sam Tarling Ending extreme inequality to end poverty has no lack of policy options: from corporate tax reform to investment in health and education, and from raising the minimum wage to ending gender discrimination. This discussion paper aims to put one of these solutions on the agenda: the billionaire tax. A global tax of 1.5% on individual net wealth in excess of $1 billion and spent on basic education and health services in poor countries is politically feasible, sufficient to fund universal access to basic education and healthcare, good for economic growth, ethically justified, and could be a catalyst for change. Oxfam Discussion Papers   Oxfam Discussion Papers are written to contribute to public debate and to invite feedback on development and humanitarian policy issues. They are ’work in progress’ documents, and do not necessarily constitute final publications or reflect Oxfam policy positions. The views and recommendations expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Oxfam. For more information, or to comment on this paper, email djacobs@oxfamamerica.org.  2 The Case for a Billionaire Tax INTRODUCTION    As Oxfam reported in 2016, the 62 richest individuals in the world own as much wealth as half of humanity. 1  Most people have the gut feeling that such extreme inequality is wrong. But what can be done about it? There is no lack of policy options to end extreme inequality: from corporate tax reform to investment in health and education, and from raising the minimum wage to ending gender discrimination. 2  This discussion paper aims to put one of these solutions on the agenda: the billionaire tax. In ‘Capital in the Twenty - First Century’, a book that captured the zeitgeist, Thomas Piketty made the case for wealth taxes. 3  Oxfam floated the idea of a global billionaire tax in 2014, 4  echoing a similar suggestion by the United Nations in 2012. 5  The consensus, however, is that global wealth taxes are politically unfeasible. Or are they? This paper argues that a tax of 1.5% on all individual net wealth in excess of $1 billion and spent on basic education and health services in poor countries is ã  politically feasible, ã  sufficient to fund universal access to basic education and healthcare, ã  good for economic growth, ã  ethically justified, and ã  a catalyst for change.  A BILLIONAIRE TAX IS POLITICALLY FEASIBLE  A three-step strategy could make a billionaire tax a reality. The first two steps  –  UN resolution and corporate social responsibility  –  would establish the norm that the world’s billionaires are expected to contribute to international development. The third step  –  national legislation  –  would make that contribution mandatory, making it a true tax. Each step builds on the previous one, but they could also be pursued in parallel. No international body has the legal authority to levy taxes. States will oppose any attempt to give them such enforcement authority, as taxation is a symbol of sovereignty. Nevertheless, the United Nations carries moral authority and the resolutions of its General Assembly constitute ‘ soft law ’ –  norms that member states are expected to follow.  As the first step, with a single majority vote, the UN General Assembly could call on individuals to contribute each year 1.5% of their net wealth above one billion dollars to international development, and call on member states to enforce such contributions. Low-income and lower-middle-income countries have half of the votes in that assembly and a clear interest in passing such a resolution. Even without enforcement, some billionaires will be willing to heed the world’s call  and pay their contribution. Billionaires are famous people, whom you can check on Forbes’ ‘ The World’s Billionaires ’ . Not paying the tax would be known, and would tarnish their reputations. Although some billionaires could hide their wealth to protect their reputations, most of the information that Forbes uses comes from public records. Billionaires typically own shares in publicly-traded companies or private companies that publish some degree of information. 6  Transparency is an increasingly accepted norm, and more governments now require all kinds of disclosures. This trend is likely to continue.  The Case for a Billionaire Tax 3 The second step of the strategy would be to bolster that reputational effect by integrating the billionaire tax into the corporate social responsibility agenda. Billionaires are associated with specific companies that they own. Their companies have a variety of stakeholders, including investors, consumers, and employees. These corporate stakeholders could pressure the billionaire-shareholder to pay the billionaire tax. Although the company and the billionaire-shareholder are different legal persons, and the latter does not have to follow the instructions of the former, their brands are often intimately connected and the billionaire would suffer if his or her company lost consumers or investors. Ensuring that companies ’  owners pay the billionaire tax could become a corporate social responsibility norm, like ensuring that labour standards are respected throughout a company’s supply chain. We already see that brands enjoying a good reputation are coming under increasing pressure to ‘ pay their fair share of taxes ’  and refrain from using tax avoidance schemes. Similar pressure could be built in the future for them to ‘ share the wealth ’  or ‘ give back to society ’ . The more legitimacy a corporate social responsibility norm acquires, the more costly it is for companies to ignore it. A resolution of the UN General Assembly, which is the intergovernmental body enjoying the most legitimacy, is not necessary in order to pursue the corporate social responsibility route, but it would greatly support it. The third step of the strategy would be for governments to pass national legislation making the billionaire tax mandatory for all billionaires owning assets on their territory, regardless of their residence or citizenship. By translating the international ‘ soft law ’  into ‘ hard ’  national law, the billionaire tax would become a true tax, legally enforceable. Only a minority of governments would adopt such legislation at first. Even in the long term, some governments are likely to hold out in order to lure wealth to their territories. Nevertheless, a handful of leading countries could sway many billionaires to pay the tax, because national laws would reinforce the global reputational cost of non-compliance and because the inability to operate in the countries mandating the tax would constitute a real commercial handicap. For instance, ten of the twenty-eight member states of the European Union, including France, Germany, Italy and Spain, are working to adopt a financial transaction tax. A similar coalition would represent a critical mass and provide real teeth to a billionaire tax. The financial transaction tax has been campaigned for by a large coalition of organizations including Oxfam, and the success of the campaign is partly due to the blow to the reputation of the financial industry after the 2008 financial crisis. Likewise, the general public is concerned about extreme inequality; the success of any billionaire tax will ultimately depend on public mobilization.  A billionaire tax is a highly campaignable issue. It is a simple and compelling idea building on the strong feelings people have about inequality. The three-step strategy allows for incremental victories. Last but not least, its potential impact on poverty reduction is huge.  4 The Case for a Billionaire Tax  A BILLIONAIRE TAX IS SUFFICIENT TO PAY FOR UNIVERSAL BASIC EDUCATION AND HEALTHCARE Based on Forbes’ data of March 2016, a 1.5% tax on wealth in excess of $1bn would raise $70bn a year if all billionaires paid it. 7  That is a staggering amount despite the small number of taxpayers, reflecting how extreme wealth inequality has become. It corresponds to half the total overseas development assistance from OECD countries to developing countries ($132bn in 2015). 8  Such revenues would be sufficient to secure an education for all the 124 million children not going to school in low- and lower-middle-income countries ($39bn a year according to UNESCO) 9  and to strengthen the health systems of 74 developing countries and save 6 million lives a year ($32bn a year according to WHO). 10  Alternatively, it would be sufficient to end ‘ a dollar a day ’  extreme poverty. 11  While the tax proceeds will vary year to year reflecting the volatility of stock markets, the long-term trajectory is clearly ascending: total billionaire wealth has been growing at 16% a year between 2002 and 2014 despite the 2008  – 9 financial crisis, according to Forbes data (mainly because of the rapid rise in the number of extremely rich people crossing the billion-dollar threshold). While the tax may slow down that growth, it would not kill the golden goose; indeed, it could even accelerate economic growth.  A BILLIONAIRE TAX MAY BOOST ECONOMIC GROWTH Extreme poverty is a huge waste of resources. The proceeds of a billionaire tax could grow the human capital and unleash the economic potential of tens of millions of people who currently lack access to basic healthcare and education. That in turn would boost economic growth and decrease poverty. While the quality of education and healthcare services and good governance of public spending also matter, lack of funding for these social services remains an important barrier to development. One study covering 120 developing countries in the period 1975 to 2000 estimates that increasing spending on education by one percentage point of GDP is associated with three more years of schooling and an increase in economic growth of 1.4 percentage points in 15 years. Similarly, an increase in healthcare spending of one percentage point of GDP is associated with an increase of 0.6 percentage points in the under-five child survival rate and a rise of 0.5 percentage points in annual per capita GDP growth. 12  Spending an extra $39bn and $32bn a year on basic education and healthcare would represent investments of respectively 0.6% and 0.5% in low- and lower-middle- income countries’ GD P. Such investments might therefore accelerate growth in real per capita GDP of these countries by 1.1 percentage points (from a base of 3.9% in 2015) and global growth by 0.1 percentage points. To assess the impact of a billionaire tax on economic growth, that positive impact of spending it on essential services must of course be balanced with the negative impact of raising it. Economic theory predicts that wealth taxes reduce economic growth because they discourage saving and risk-taking and encourage capital flight. Caroline Freund argues that billionaires are necessary to sustain growth in emerging countries, 13  an argument that is likely to carry weight with G77 leaders whose votes are essential to pass a UN resolution. However, her real point is that large companies are necessary for growth in emerging markets, which is true as they generate economies of scale. Large companies generate billionaires, but the latter are not themselves necessary
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