You may think that the slight increase in tax rates in the Clinton years was adequate because we began running surpluses at the end of his term, but the growth of the economy in the late 1990s and concomitant government revenue was a result of the tech bubble, and not an indicator of what tax rates would be appropriate in a healthy economy.
The argument is made that higher tax rates choke off enterprise, and drag the economy down. I call BS on that claim. If someone has an idea for a business and thinks s/he can make a bundle on it, the tax rate may be an irritation, but not a deal-breaker. For instance, in 1957 the top marginal tax rate of 91% did not dissuade Ken Olson and Harlan Anderson from starting the very successful Digital Equipment Company (DEC). And a top marginal rate of 70% did not dissuade the young Bill Gates and Paul Allen from founding Microsoft in 1975. So the claims that raising top marginal rates to a modest 40% will destroy incentives and depress the economy are - well - BS.
Diamond and Saez have shown that a top marginal rate of 50-70% will maximise revenue while not depressing growth. Indeed, if one looks back to see how growth correlates with tax rates, then period of higher growth came in times when tax rates were higher. So - do lower tax rates on high incomes stimulate the economy? No!
I've been looking back at growth rates in the sixties:
In 1965 and 1966 the top marginal rate on a couple filing jointly was 70% on income over $1,500,000 in today's dollars, yet growth was a healthy 8%+ in 1966. Clearly a 70% top marginal rate is not an impediment to growth.
We do have a worryingly large deficit and accumulated debt, but it's not the result of spending: it's the result of the rash lowering of tax rates in the Reagan and Bush years, along with the foolish wars started by George W. Bush, and the economic crash resulting from poor oversight of the banking industry.
Attacking the deficit by reducing spending is self-defeating: more people are put out of work, reducing tax revenue and increasing outlays on safety net support, as the British are finding out. Attacking the deficit by raising taxes on lower income earners who live from pay check to paycheck is similarly self-defeating: these individuals will have to cut spending, so depressing the economy, with jobs lost and the same lost revenue and increased safety net outlays.
But raising rates on those whose income allows them to comfortably meet their material needs and then some would not have the same depressing effect on the economy, as their spending needs are satisfied. And the present tax increase recently passed of top rate of 39.6% on income over $400,000 is woefully inadequate to meet our revenue needs. Here are the kind of marginal tax rates I believe we should be working towards, simultaneously lowering rates on lower incomes and raising rates on higher incomes, so we may ultimately meet current revenue needs as well as start paying down our accumulated debt:
(Suggested marginal rates for married filing jointly - halve the income ranges for singles. The top marginal rate is the same as in 1965-66.)
10% $0 - 25,000
15% $25,000 - 75,000
25% $75,000 - 150,000
35% $150,000 - 325,000
50% $325,000 - 650,000
60% $650,000 - 1,500,000
70% Over $1,500,000
Compare these rates to our present (2013) tax rates for married filing jointly:
10% $0 - 17,850
15% $17,850 - 72,500
25% $72,500 - 146,400
28% $146,400 - 223,050
33% $223,050 - 398,350
35% $398,350 - 450,000
39.6% Over $450,000
As you can see, I'm proposing more progressive rates, with considerably higher revenue producing rates on those most able to afford to support their country, and lower taxes on those making $150,000 or less.
Ah, if only they'd asked me....
Update 5/29/2013: See this paper on the association between low tax rates and inequality.
Update 3/1/2014 Paul Krugman shows (once again) that we don't have a spending problem