Mitt Romney’s Fair Share

by Joseph E. Stiglitz Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, is University Professor at Columbia University. His latest book is The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers our Future 04.09.2012


NEW YORK – Mitt Romney’s income taxes have become a major issue in the American presidential campaign. Is this just petty politics, or does it really matter? In fact, it does matter – and not just for Americans.

A major theme of the underlying political debate in the United States is the role of the state and the need for collective action. The private sector, while central in a modern economy, cannot ensure its success alone. For example, the financial crisis that began in 2008 demonstrated the need for adequate regulation.

Moreover, beyond effective regulation (including ensuring a level playing field for competition), modern economies are founded on technological innovation, which in turn presupposes basic research funded by government. This is an example of a public good – things from which we all benefit, but that would be undersupplied (or not supplied at all) were we to rely on the private sector.

Conservative politicians in the US underestimate the importance of publicly provided education, technology, and infrastructure. Economies in which government provides these public goods perform far better than those in which it does not.

But public goods must be paid for, and it is imperative that everyone pays their fair share. While there may be disagreement about what that entails, those at the top of the income distribution who pay 15% of their reported income (money accruing in tax shelters in the Cayman Islands and other tax havens may not be reported to US authorities) clearly are not paying their fair share.

There is an old adage that a fish rots from the head. If presidents and those around them do not pay their fair share of taxes, how can we expect that anyone else will? And if no one does, how can we expect to finance the public goods that we need?..........

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