Tax the Speculators: An Old Idea Whose Time is Now

Published on political affairs pa, by Owen Williamson, January 08, 2010.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s September suggestion for a tax on Wall Street to finance health care reform is an all-American solution to a uniquely American problem, and deserves both publicity and support. Although Trumka’s idea has been lambasted by critics as everything from “sand in the wheels of commerce” to “Communist,” taxes on America’s financial sector have a long and honorable history in the story of US capitalism, and have always constituted an accepted cost of doing business during the country’s periods of greatest economic growth and prosperity.

Contemporary ultra-right “tea-partiers”  would do well to remember that American colonists protested the British “Stamp Tax” not primarily because it was taxation, but rather because it was imposed “without representation.”

However, according to eminent revenue tax researcher B. J. Castenholz, as soon as a unified and a more-or-less representative Federal Government was established, American revolutionary leaders found no problem in imposing a significant stamp tax of their own on stock transfers, as well as “bills of exchange, bills of lading, bonds, conveyances, insurance policies, powers of attorney [and] promissory notes.” These Federal stamp taxes were imposed from 1798 to 1817. Various states also imposed “stamp taxes” of their own; Maryland’s lasted until 1856 … //

… The most cogent objection being made to this (an objection that is not entirely off base) is that what is traded on the stock market is not “real money,” not true wealth, but rather “paper worth,” virtual wealth existing only on a balance sheet. This is what allows traders to “earn”  millions overnight without ever finding a single new oil field, opening a single new gold mine, or (heaven forbid!) doing a lick of work, and why the market can “lose” a cool billion or two in a few hours without a single factory or store burning down anywhere in the country. In this sense, stock market “wealth” is indeed “monopoly money,” a fictitious number that would immediately lose most of its value if a large number of investors simultaneously left the game table and tried to cash in their balance sheets for “real”  money. Taxing “virtual” wealth in real money is in this sense materially problematic.

However, no one would deny that even though grotesquely “leveraged” and inflated, stock market virtual wealth does indeed represent a much smaller core amount of true money, billions of dollars of concrete wealth in plants and machinery, materials, inventory and cash on hand, real wealth that corporations have extracted and will extract from workers and consumers. It is that real percentage that can and should be subject to real taxes. An astute analyst would also point out that the National Debt itself is composed of “virtual money,” in the sense that no one could ever collect even an infinitesimal fraction of that amount, at least without taking ownership of a state or two – an amount which virtually everyone agrees, sooner or later must be “inflated away” if the United States is not to go into default or go the way of the old USSR.

Researcher Joshua Honigwachs estimated in 2005 that the total monetary value of the United States would not exceed $100 trillion. Figures like $300 billion a day in the stock market, a $12 trillion debt, or $21 to $81 trillion in annual stock trades have little or no relation to anything in the reality that we experience in daily life, where mortgage, groceries, hospital bills and credit cards must be paid for in actual green dollars earned by the sweat of our brows.

However, if Trumka’s suggestion were to be accepted, even a stock market tax at the 1871 rate (0.1 percent, or one thousandth of the principal amount traded) would still raise at least $20 billion a year, enough to pay the additional cost of the president’s 20,000-troop surge In Afghanistan if nothing else.

And then there is foreign exchange speculation, which even the most die-hard apologist for capitalism usually admits is utterly unproductive or even destructive, as in the recent case of the Icelandic bubble and collapse. The euro, a thoroughly capitalist project, was specifically designed to expel the harmful parasite of intra-European currency speculation from the body of European capitalism. According to Wikipedia, 70 to 90 percent of all foreign exchange transactions are speculative, while daily foreign exchange volume is in the range of $3.98 trillion. Since currency trading goes on 24/7, 365 days a year, annual trading volume could approach $1.5 quadrillion, more than twice the estimated market value of the entire planet. However, the difference here is that trading takes place, at least theoretically, in “real” currency, dollars, euros, yen or pesos, not in absurdly inflated “paper” stock values. (In reality, speculative trades most often take place using currency the speculator does not own, could not afford, and may not even exist – orders-of-magnitude more dollars are traded than are actually in circulation!)

Any experienced international traveler knows that major credit and debit cards charge between one percent and four percent for foreign currency purchases or cash withdrawals, even between the United States and Canada. A one percent  (or even 0.1 percent) tax on all bank foreign exchange transactions (a large portion of which involve dollars, and almost all of which go through a central exchange in London), would generate uncounted billions overnight, easily sufficient to cover “Cadillac” health reform for all, plus maybe a leftover war or two, while costing travelers less than their credit card charges (or for business types, a few grand for every million exchanged, mere “chump change” for those who deal in such amounts). Unproductive speculation would be somewhat discouraged, while weaker nations’  currencies would be slightly better protected from predatory attack.

A Nov. 26 Op Ed by Paul Krugman in the New York Times argues that the time for taxing speculators has arrived.  Speculation is more rampant than ever before, and quick-buck, “ultra-short-term finance” scam artists are rotting the foundations of our economy. He suggests that US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and other figures in the Obama administration are so beholden to Wall Street that such a necessary tax is highly unlikely in the short term. However, as Trumka told POLITICO. com, “It’ll stop the short term churning that these guys go through, and make money out of just selling to each other back and forth three times a day.” Such a reform would pay for health care reform without penalizing those who already have adequate health care protection.

Trumka’s voice needs to be heard loud and clear in Congress and in the White House. To pay for health care reform, tax the speculators, not working people. (full text).

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