Co-Written with Lenore Palladino.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has claimed that he’s “a progressive Democrat who’s broke.” But in his most recent executive budget, he proposes ending a little-known tax that could make all the difference. For the last century, New York State has had a stock-transfer tax, which taxes nearly every stock trade. Since 1981, it’s been instantly rebated—no money is actually collected—leaving potential revenue on the table even as financial profits skyrocket. Cuomo suggests ending the tax, citing “unnecessary administrative work.” But New York’s stock-transfer tax can be easily re-implemented, instead putting that administrative work to good use.
Cuomo should work to end or reduce the tax rebate, rather than take the tax off the books. New York isn’t broke so much as unequal: one in every twenty-two people in New York City is a millionaire, while 56,987 New Yorkers live in homeless shelters. A tax like this could raise hundreds of millions of dollars.
The financial sector grew as a share of the economy by 175 percent from 1947 to 2013. This rapid growth has led many to observe that the financial sector increasingly relies on rent-seeking: making money from moving money around only to make more money. Financiers no longer need bother with productive investments.
Wall Street is flush with cash, but the state’s coffers continue to struggle. Public employment in New York dropped by 4.2 percent between December 2007 and June 2014. A modest 0.02 percent tax on stock transactions would raise hundreds of millions of dollars annually. New York City faces incredible risks from climate change. A recent report estimates that, without adaptation, the annual costs of climate change will be between $3.8 billion and $7.5 billion per year at mid-century. The stock-transfer tax could provide, on its own, a major head start toward protecting New York City from devastation.
Opponents of a tax on stock transactions claim that it would reduce trading and jobs and harm the economy, and it would certainly slow down short-term, highly speculative trading to some extent. The real question is: What are the costs that New Yorkers face right now from runaway speculation and insufficient public investment? Our research finds that New York would gain more from the revenue raised, which could be funneled toward job creation, even though falling trade may cause some job loss in the financial sector. Of course, some of those astronomical profits that Wall Street banks keep reporting could be put toward the tax as well.
Finance has increased inequality, pulled money out of the job-creating economy and largely sustained itself on grift. To reduce these negative effects, we should tax financial transactions as well. In the wake of the recent financial crisis, a tax could be a way to reduce systemic risk. Although the New York stock-transfer tax would cover only stock trades, it could provide a model for a more comprehensive national tax on a broader range of financial transactions, like derivatives.
Such a tax isn’t unprecedented. After all, New York had one in place from 1905 to 1981. From 1914 to 1966, the United States levied a modest tax on sales and transfers of stock. House Speaker Jim Wright pushed for a renewed federal tax in 1987, proposing a fee of 0.25 to 0.50 percent on the buyer and seller in each securities transaction, highlighting the tax’s progressive aspects. More recently, Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Peter DeFazio proposed the Wall Street Trading and Speculators Tax Act, which would assess a tax of 0.03 percent on trades of stocks, bonds, futures, options, swaps and credit-default swaps and would generate some $350 billion over nine years. Representative Keith Ellison proposed the Inclusive Prosperity Act, which would entail a 0.5 percent tax on stocks, a 0.1 percent tax on bond trades and 0.005 percent tax on derivatives; that bill was projected to raise similar amounts.
On May 6, 2014, ten European nations issued a joint statement that a financial tax would commence in 2016 as a means to reduce speculation and raise revenue. The initial tax will focus on the trading of stocks and some derivatives. The European Commission estimates that a broad tax could raise 31 billion euros ($39 billion) in annual revenue.
In New York, revenue is desperately needed. Governor Cuomo should support Assemblyman Phil Steck’s bill, which would begin collection for 40 percent of the tax and was supported by economist Jeffrey Sachs. Sachs has said that the “financial transactions tax is a solid idea that has been resisted by Wall Street for years.” Instead of repealing the tax, New York should restart collection and use the revenues to stimulate equitable economic growth.
This article originally appeared in the print version of The Nation and online.