It's Time for a 74% Top Tax Bracket to Save America From Our Billionaire Problem

Thom plus logo The secret billionaires don't want you to know is that your pay won't change whether taxes go up or down

It's time to bring back the top 74% tax bracket that Ronald Reagan blew up, so average working people's wages can rise again and we can get our billionaire problem under control. It'll also enable America to return to the widespread growth and prosperity America saw before Reagan took a meat-axe to our economy.

When Reagan came in the office, the tax rate paid by those in the very top tax bracket was around 70%, which is why back then the average CEO in America only paid themselves 30 times what their average employee made.

If a CEO took out more money than that, the taxes on their income were so high it wasn't worth the effort, so the fat-cats left their money in their companies to grow their businesses, develop new products, and pay their employees a decent wage.

Today, however, CEOs average well over 300 times their average workers pay and, in some industries, CEOs make thousands or even tens of thousands of times more than their average workers. How did this happen?

In 1920, Republican Warren Harding was elected president on a platform of dropping the top tax rate from 91% to 25%, which he did. It kicked off the "Roaring 20s," a time when working peoples' wages actually went down, but the income and wealth of the very, very rich exploded.

Rich people had to have someplace to put all that new money, so they poured it into the stock market; when that stock market bubble burst, it dragged the entire world into the First Republican Great Depression.

In the early 1980s, Reagan set up what was essentially the same situation. When he came in the office, the top tax rate was 74%, and when he dropped it down to 25% the rich got massively richer, but working class people saw their incomes begin a 40-year slide, compared to the increases going to the top 1%.

Why would that be? Why is it that when taxes are cut average people's wages, over time, actually go down or remain frozen, even as inflation and the cost-of-living explode all around them?

Some years ago I did my radio program for a week from the studios of Danish Radio in Copenhagen.

Speaking with one of the more conservative members of Parliament, I asked why the Danish people didn't revolt over an average 52% income tax rate on working people, with an even higher rate on really high earners?

He pointed out to me that the average Dane was doing just fine, with a minimum wage that averaged about $18 an hour, free college and free healthcare, not to mention four weeks of paid vacation every year and notoriety as the happiest nation on earth, according to a study done by the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom.

"You Americans are such suckers," he told me and I reported some years ago. "You think the rules for taxes that apply to rich people also apply to working people, but they don't.

"When working people's taxes go up," he said, "their pay also goes up over time. When their taxes go down, their pay goes down. It may take a year or two or three at all even out, but it always works that way - look at any country in Europe. And that rule on taxes is the exact opposite of how it works for rich people!"

Economist David Ricardo laid this out in 1817 with his "Iron Law of Wages" laid out in his book On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation.

Ricardo pointed out that before-tax income is pretty much irrelevant. The money people live on, the money that defines the "marketplace for labor," is take-home pay. After-tax income.

But the rules for how taxes work are different for rich people.

When taxes go down on rich people, they simply keep the money that they saved with the tax cut. They use it to stuff larger wads of cash into their money bins.

When taxes go up on them, they'll just raise their own wages - until they hit a confiscatory tax rate (which haven't existed since the Reagan Revolution), and then they'll stop giving themselves raises.

And, history shows, while keeping that money in their company to avoid the top tax bracket, employers typically pay their workers more over time as well.

In other words, as taxes go up, income typically goes up for working class people but goes down for the very rich: High tax brackets discourage exploitation by the very rich and push up wages for working class people.

We saw this throughout the 1940-1980 period; income at the very tip-top was stable at about 30 times worker's wages because rich people didn't want to get pushed into that very tip-top tax bracket of 74%.

But for working class people, Ricardo pointed out 200 years ago, the rules are completely different.

When working class people end up with more money as a consequence of a tax cut, their employers realize that they're being paid more than the "market for labor" would dictate.

For example, if the average worker on an automobile assembly line made $30,000 a year in take-home pay, all the car manufacturing companies know that $30K is what people will build cars for. It's the set-point in the "market for labor" for that industry or type of job.

Because of income taxes, both federal, state and local, an auto worker may need an income of $40,000 a year to end up with that $30,000 take-home pay, so that $40,000 gross (before-tax) income becomes the average pay across the industry. At that pay and tax rate, workers end up taking home $30,000 a year.

But what happens if that income tax is cut in half?

Now, a $40,000 a year salary produces $35,000 a year in take-home pay, and employers in the auto industry know that that's $5000 a year more than they can hire people to build cars for.

Put another way, the employers know that they can hire people in the labor market for $30,000 a year take-home pay, which is now a gross salary of $35,000, so they begin lowering their $40,000 gross wage offerings toward $35,000 to make up for the tax cut and keep take-home pay within the $30,000 "market for wages."

Since Reagan's massive tax cut, we've seen this very phenomenon in the auto industry itself!

In other words, income taxes don't much affect the take-home pay of working people who have a little control over their salaries.

When income taxes are high, employers have to raise working class wages so their workers' take-home pay stays the same. And that's exactly what happened in the period from the 1940s to the 1980s as tax rates were fairly high.

On the other hand, when income taxes on working people go down, employers will reduce the wages they offer over time to keep their workers' take-home pay at the same level. That, after all, is what Ricardo's "market for labor" specifies.

But the rules are completely different for the rich, who live outside the "Iron Law of Labor." When taxes change for the very rich, they take home less money when taxes go up, and keep more money when taxes go down.

The incredible magic trick that the very rich have done in America over the past 40 years is to convince average working people that the tax rules for the rich also apply to working class people, and therefore tax cuts benefit average workers, too.

Economist have known since the early 1800s that this is nonsense, as David Ricardo and many others have pointed out. But after decades of this "you should worry about tax increases the same way rich people do" message being pounded into our brains by mostly Republican politicians, working people think that tax cuts benefit them and tax increases hurt them.

It's a real testimonial to the power of the Republican propaganda machine that even though individual wages have been relatively flat for 40 years because of Reagan's tax cuts, the average American still thinks tax cuts are a good thing for them.

In fact, the time of greatest prosperity for the working class, when working class take-home pay (and wealth) was increasing faster than the income (and wealth) of the top 1%, was the period from 1940 to 1980 when taxes were high and the nation was prosperous.

FDR raised the top tax bracket to 91% and it stayed there through his administration, as well as those of Truman, Eisenhower, JFK and the early years of LBJ. President Johnson dropped it to 74%, which held through his administration as well as those of Nixon, Ford and Carter.

This was the time of maximum American working class prosperity.

Reagan's massive tax cuts in the 1980s, of course, put an end to that and started the explosion of wealth at the top which has led America to have over 700 billionaires today. And gutted America's ability to maintain first-class infrastructure.

To stabilize our economy and re-empower working people, we must bring back the top tax brackets that existed before the Reagan Revolution. It'll also provide the necessary funds to rebuild our country from the wreckage of Reagan's policies, which are largely still in place.

By taxing income in the very top brackets at a rate well above 50%, ideally the 74% rate we had before Reagan, we stabilize the economy, stop the relentless poaching of working peoples' wages for the money bins of the rich, and begin restoring our middle class.


Originally posted on


Riverplunge's picture
Riverplunge 3 years 20 weeks ago

Tax them??!

You would have better luck, chasing a hungry bulldog

off of a meat truck than separate a "Cash Junkie" from

a dollar. (I know them, some are "relatives", and I never talk to them.)

Money is no less an addiction than cocaine, opium,

gambling or methamphetamine

to these rich things.. er, um "people"..

Once in a blue moon, you will find a philanthropist

Who actually does share his wallet with others.

p { margin-bottom: 0.1in; line-height: 115%; background: transparent }

p { margin-bottom: 0.1in; line-height: 115%; background: transparent }

wrw105's picture
wrw105 3 years 20 weeks ago

David Cay Johnston is doing a series on tax policy for the rich vs the rest of us over at

Rob Lukacs's picture
Rob Lukacs 3 years 20 weeks ago

One thing though from your example it sounds like either way the employee still nets the same pay of 30k. So I am trying to figure out how the tax increase helps. Yes it gets them a higher pay but if they are still only able to spend 30k of it what difference does it make? Please explain. Thanks really want to understand.

miss73's picture
miss73 3 years 19 weeks ago

Increasing taxes and funding programs that support working folks puts more money in our pockets. An example is the establishment of Social Security in 1935 and Medicare in 1965.

If you don't have to pay an exorbitant amount of your income on things like healthcare and education, as we do, then you have more money to build wealth.

alis volat's picture
alis volat 3 years 19 weeks ago

Yea, it's all about paying taxes for the commons and quality of life. It helps to bring equal opportunity, choice, and less stress. The rich and corporations use the commons, but don't want to pay for them: roads, fire/police protection, national security, airports, educational systems, public lands/parks, water resources, governmental research, and etc. etc. etc.

There are other things American workers have been subjected to that have created wealth for the billionaires but have left them holding the bag with flat wages. The big ones are automation and the constant push to increase productivity. The workers are rarely paid for that heavier work-load. The automation is inevitable, but we need to make sure we pay for their re-education, especially for the trades. They need unemployment when they lose their job to a machine or off-shoring.

The right likes to espouse work not welfare. They need to apply that to the rich and corporations that take advantage others that work to keep this country humming. The Covid crisis has shown us just how essential our workforce really is. And even though we can live temporarily without some of the jobs, we know we will all lose our minds if we can't get our other workers back out there to take care of the less essential stuff we absolutely love to do!

Willie W's picture
Willie W 3 years 19 weeks ago

Higher taxes on the wealthy, properly managed, are what built America. Now, we can't even afford to maintain what we already have. Like the homeowner who can afford the morgage payment, but has no money left over to fix anything. Our government caved.

Legend 3 years 19 weeks ago

450000 have died from Covid. 78% were older than 70. Just using rough figures. Those 450000 probably got 2000 per month in Social Security and Medicare. 450000 x 2000 x 12 = 10,800,000,000 per year. Kind of makes a 1.8 trillion dollar relief package look cheap. Republicans offered 1/3. The relief package is not just handouts. A lot is for covid testing, vaccine distribution, State relief etc. Add on to this that someone inherited the savings of those 450000 that now enters the economy. Republicans probably look at calculations like this as a reason to lower taxes.

SueN's picture
SueN 3 years 19 weeks ago

On the other hand there are those with long covid who may not be able to work again, it is too early to tell how many.

cuz's picture
cuz 3 years 19 weeks ago

Thom, Tax the rich is always the popular cry.

I well remember those days when the top tax rate was 74%. The part you never mention is the fact in those days we had far more allowable deductions. Deductions to the point where our effective tax paid was less than the new tax tables of today.

You also never consider the fact that many states have a very high state income tax which was seldom a factor back in the day.

You also exclude all the newly created individual designer taxes on goods like pot that add considerably to our overall tax burden.

Test yourself by asking, when has there ever been a tax that the government eliminated?

If you really want some impact on the rich you need a flat tax starting at some point above the poverty level.

If you really want to have a meaningful impact on everything overall, cut the hell out of the redundant government programs.

Legend 3 years 19 weeks ago

SueN, there is all sorts of uncalculated costs, loss and gains. Restaurants were hammered, liquor stores have boomed. The cost for millions that went to the hospital hits insurance companies but hospital income is down due to no unelective surgeries. etc.

Where did the money come from.

Hephaestus's picture
Hephaestus 3 years 19 weeks ago

Too much common sense

Sadly, we don't do that anymore!

deepspace's picture
deepspace 3 years 19 weeks ago

Here's that article wrw105 referenced in #2. Worth a read, relevant to unfair taxation and auditing:

At Tax Time, The Rich Have Plenty Of Legal Dodges. Congress Writes Lax Laws, Making It Even Better to Be Really, Really Wealthy. - David Cay Johnston, DCReport Editor-in-Chief

Xfilerose 3 years 19 weeks ago

So I hear you, the Billionaire problem!!! Maybe we should take a quick flash back at the middle ground… 60 years ago, there was a pretty good balance between class tiers, doctors, lawyers yada, yada, yada. Take the Game of Life for instance; you either went to college or went into business and based on your decision, you were basically cast into your status for the remainder of your life. As a doctor, you were granted the highest salary and likely to win the game unless someone won the lottery. Monopoly taught us that property was king, and all others paid and paid until the Monopoly forced them into bankruptcy. Even if obscured from view, the Billionaires were always there and like the Trump family’s little Gilligan’s Island fantasy, entitled to the last breath! So sad the programming we hold so dear and rendered us so blind. But the past 60 years has taught us a new game. Not that the Billionaires are new, well maybe just more of them, but a more predatorial position of entitlement that reduces and enslaves the middle class, especially under the Trump ideology! In order to form a more “perfect union”, those who participate in the morphosis of the emerging butterfly are guaranteed a place the new in it’s Monarchy. We are all feeling the erosion of our prior existence, but just cannot put our finger on it and cling to tradition. I.e. the Republicans have a phototropism to the light of Trump out of ignorance, blinded by the ideology and motivated by the money. While the Democrats are maybe even more blinded by an ideology that the Democracy will prevail and maybe that they can pull it back and align to control it. Or even worse, as you see them both working in unison, polling our responses and adjusting their strategies to psychologically align us a new direction as each party touts their inability to either indict or hold the other party responsible or accountable for their actions. Let’s face it, unless someone can explain it to me in a more concise manner, government of the people by the people for the people is just words and it is not the constitution that is being trampled here but rather the declaration of independence itself. Did we not see 4 years of or our system being replaced by government of Trump, by Trump, and for Trump while he even cast is supporters as collateral damage while those he revered got pardons and went free? Yet there is no defense of the people and our very voice is overshadowed by the mere tweeting of a lunatic! I have no faith at this point!

Legend 3 years 19 weeks ago

The wealthy can afford to hire a tax consultant for $100000 that saves them $1000000.

Never thought that I would post a link to a Liz Cheney interview.

Legend 3 years 19 weeks ago

Русские побеждают

deepspace's picture
deepspace 3 years 19 weeks ago

S'yu vyigryvayet, russkiye proigryvayut.

SueN's picture
SueN 3 years 19 weeks ago

в конце концов

deepspace's picture
deepspace 3 years 19 weeks ago

Продолжайте сражаться, товарищ!

SueN's picture
SueN 3 years 19 weeks ago

Это тяжелая работа, но кто-то должен ее делать.

Thom's Blog Is On the Move

Hello All

Thom's blog in this space and moving to a new home.

Please follow us across to - this will be the only place going forward to read Thom's blog posts and articles.

From The Thom Hartmann Reader:
"Thom Hartmann seeks out interesting subjects from such disparate outposts of curiosity that you have to wonder whether or not he uncovered them or they selected him."
Leonardo DiCaprio, actor, producer, and environmental activist
From The Thom Hartmann Reader:
"Right through the worst of the Bush years and into the present, Thom Hartmann has been one of the very few voices constantly willing to tell the truth. Rank him up there with Jon Stewart, Bill Moyers, and Paul Krugman for having the sheer persistent courage of his convictions."
Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth
From Screwed:
"I think many of us recognize that for all but the wealthiest, life in America is getting increasingly hard. Screwed explores why, showing how this is no accidental process, but rather the product of conscious political choices, choices we can change with enough courage and commitment. Like all of Thom’s great work, it helps show us the way forward."
Paul Loeb, author of Soul of a Citizen and The Impossible Will Take a Little While