Taxing the rich has been a hot subject of late thanks to a few Congressional Democrats. First, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez floated the idea of raising the top marginal income tax rate to 70 percent. Then Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren proposed a “wealth tax” on those who have at least $50 million in assets. And today, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders proposed increasing the estate tax for those who inherit more than $3.5 million.
These ideas have been met with predictable consternation from conservatives. CEOs and Wall Street-types gathered at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos even had a good laugh when asked about Ocasio-Cortez’s idea.
But raising taxes on the rich isn’t a joke. It’s an economic necessity.
Today, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans have as much wealth as the bottom 95 percent combined. In every state in the U.S., income inequality has increased since the 1970s; overall, this level of inequality hasn’t been seen since the 1920s. Despite this, taxes on the richest Americans have generally decreased — a trend that was exacerbated by President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax cuts.
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In order to make and maintain the investments America needs in health care, education, infrastructure, and beyond, more revenue simply must be raised. And given the current concentration of wealth in America, raising taxes on the rich is one of the only logical places to start. (Plus, income inequality is demonstrably bad for democracy, as it allows the wealthy to accumulate huge amounts of money that they can then spend in order to elect people just like them or who will be sympathetic to their interests.)
There are plenty of ways to go about raising those taxes on the rich in order to combat these problems, but here are four broad ways to bring some balance back into the tax code.
1. Raise taxes on income.
Unsurprisingly, ultra-wealthy public figures including former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Republican Rep. Steve Scalise (LA), balked at Ocasio-Cortez’s suggestion to raise the top income tax rate to 70 percent from its current 37 percent, complaining that this would rob the rich of most of their money. That’s based in a misunderstanding of how marginal tax rates work, because rates do not apply to the entirety of one’s income. In the case of a 70 percent rate on incomes of more than $10 million, it is only the 10,000,001st dollar and beyond that will be taxed at 70 percent. Under the American system of progressive income taxation, everyone pays the same rate on the same dollars, so everybody pays 12 percent on dollars 9,526 to 38,700, 22 percent on dollars 38,701 to 82,500 and on up the income scale.
Ocasio-Cortez and others have also proposed adding additional tax brackets, to separate out the super-duper-rich from the merely super-rich. Today, those making $600,000 or more annually are taxed at the same rate on their wage income as those making millions or billions of dollars, because the code tops out at that 37 percent rate. Ocasio-Cortez envisioned at least one new bracket with a higher tax rate at 10 million, and perhaps more besides.
Contrary to the hue and cry that met Ocasio-Cortez’s suggestion, historically, America’s top tax rate has been 70 percent or higher. It’s only since the Reagan administration that today’s levels came into vogue; in the 1950s, for instance, the top marginal rate exceeded 90 percent, a time when economic growth in the U.S. reached some of the highest rates on record.
Applying a 70 percent rate to incomes of more than $10 million would raise about $700 billion over 10 years. That alone would more than cover the cost of SNAP, which provides food for 42 million Americans, for a decade.
2. Raise taxes on investments.
Currently, the most anyone can be taxed on their wage income, which they make from going to work and collecting a paycheck, is 37 percent. However, the peak tax rate on the money made from investments such as stocks (which are known as capital gains) is just 20 percent. Nearly all of the benefits from the lower tax rate on investments flow to the wealthiest Americans, because they make the vast majority of the investment income in the country. The Tax Policy Center estimates that just 4 percent of households in the bottom 80 percent of households will face any capital gains tax from 2018.
While the gap between investment and wage income is supposed to boost economic growth by encouraging the rich to spread their money around, the evidence that it actually does so is thin. The gap does, however, contribute to income inequality in a significant way.
In a recent New York Times op-ed, former Obama administration official Steven Rattner called for raising the capital gains tax to equalize it with taxes on income. As recently as the 1980s, capital gains income and wage income were treated equally, so there’s no reason to think that the current standard is something that can’t change. (Of course, the White House is now mulling over unilaterally cutting capital gains taxes instead.)
3. Raise taxes on wealth.
America currently leads the world in the number of billionaires, who hold about $3.2 trillion in wealth. In 2018, the world’s billionaires increased their collective wealth by $2.5 billion per day. A “wealth tax,” as it’s known, would tax the assets held by the very richest Americans every year. Warren specifically called for applying a 2 percent tax on Americans with assets of more than $50 million, and a 3 percent tax on those who have more than $1 billion.
This is another avenue for addressing the fact that wage income and investment income are treated so differently, but it also gets at the fact that the current tax system allows untaxed benefits to accrue and accrue, and even be passed on from generation to generation, tax free, since the capital gains tax is only levied when assets are sold. Four other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development currently tax wealth in this way, though that is down from 12 in 1990.
In many ways, a tax like this would merely apply to the rich the same rules that already apply to the middle-class, since middle-class wealth is mainly built via property, i.e. homeownership, that is taxed annually.
4. Raise taxes on inheritances.
The Republican tax bill also raised the exemption on the estate tax – which is levied on inheritances – to $11 million, meaning a married couple can pass on $22 million tax free. During the Clinton administration, the exemption was under $1 million, and was $175,000 as recently as 1981. Lowering the exemption and increasing the top marginal estate tax rate, which currently stands at 40 percent, would not only raise billions of dollars in revenue but reduce the ability of the richest families to entrench income inequality via handing vast fortunes on to the next generation. (Congressional Republicans are currently calling for the estate tax to be repealed entirely, which would only benefit 2 out of every 1,000 families. For the same price, Congress could literally buy everyone in America a pony.)
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on Thursday intends to release a plan to lower the estate tax exemption to $3.5 million and add several new brackets, including a 55 percent rate on inheritances of more than $50 million and a 77 percent rate on those of more than $1 billion.
Also, doing away with what’s known as step-ups on inheritance, as the Obama administration proposed, would be beneficial. Under current law, when an asset is bequeathed to someone else, the increase in value is never taxed. Instead, the inheritor simply gets to start counting his or her own increase from the value on the day the asset was inherited. (As an example, if your grandfather bought stock for $2 per share, then passed it to you when it cost $10 per share, you never have to pay the tax on that $8 increase.) Closing this loophole could raise more than $600 billion over 10 years, enough to cover the cost of the entire Pell Grant program, which sends more than 20 million low-income students to college every year, 1.5 times for that decade.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of ways to increase revenue from the richest Americans, of course. But any of them is a start. And for any member of the 1 percent who might balk at paying higher tax rates, just remember: It beats getting eaten.