SHOULD THE U.S. HAVE A WEALTH TAX?

Economic inequality has been growing rapidly in the U.S. over the last 40 years. The wealthiest 10% of households now have roughly 80% of all wealth in the U.S. and 50% of all income. The richest 130,000 households now have almost as much wealth as the poorest 117 million households combined. The top 0.1% of households have seen their share of all wealth nearly triple, from 7% to 20%, in the last 40 years. Changes in tax laws since the 1980s have dramatically reduced taxes on the wealthy, even though they are the ones who receive the greatest benefit from the U.S. economic system and our public infrastructure. Economic disparities in the U.S. are greater than in any of the other 36 countries with advanced economies that make up the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). [1]

One way to slow the growth of inequality, and perhaps reverse it, would be to tax wealth annually, like income taxation. Income is taxed because it is one way to determine how much someone has benefited from our economic system and public infrastructure, how much they can afford to pay in taxes, and how much it would be fair for them to contribute to the maintenance of our public infrastructure and the smooth functioning of our society – our education system, our transportation systems, our public safety systems, our legal system of laws and courts, etc. As with the income tax, a wealth tax would have a standard deduction or exemption so that low-wealth households would not pay any wealth tax. For example, the current exemption in Switzerland is about $75,000 per person in wealth (i.e., savings), in Spain it’s around $800,000 per person, and Senator Warren has proposed $50 million per household for the U.S. (See below.)

Under our current tax system (including federal, state, and local taxes), wealthy households pay a smaller portion of their financial resources in taxes than poorer households. This is true whether the calculation is done based on income or wealth. For example, the 0.1% wealthiest households are estimated to pay 3.2% of their wealth in all taxes, while the bottom 99% of households are estimated to pay 7.2%. U.S. tax laws no longer reflect the core principle of fairness – that what one pays in taxes reflects his or her ability to pay.

Some current taxes share some characteristics of a wealth tax but are limited in scope or scale. At the state and local levels, the ownership of real estate is typically taxed and in some places some forms of tangible property, such as cars or business assets, are taxed. However, ownership of financial assets (e.g., stocks, bonds, etc.), of boats and planes, of jewelry and art, of collectibles, and of other forms of wealth are generally not taxed. Income from wealth held as financial assets and the profits from the sales of assets are taxed. Transfers of assets through gifts and inheritance are taxed.

For every one of the wealth-related taxes – on property, on income and gains from assets, and on inheritance – the wealthy and well-connected (often due to their campaign spending) have gotten policy makers to change and write loopholes into our tax laws that reduce the taxes wealthy individuals pay. For property ownership, real estate taxes and interest payments on mortgages are deductible when calculating federal income taxes (although the 2017 tax bill has surprisingly put some limits on these deductions). Income from wealth held as financial assets and the profits from the sales of assets are taxed at a lower rate that income earned from working. If assets are transferred to another person, through inheritance, gifts, or other means, the gain or profit on the assets is typically NOT taxed, allowing the wealthy to pass on their wealth tax-free. Furthermore, the inheritance tax has been cut and serious efforts have been made to eliminate it. Currently, it is applied only on assets over $11 million per person. In addition, loopholes in tax laws allow wealthy families and their tax experts to avoid or reduce their payment of inheritance taxes. If an asset is given to a charity, the gain or profit on it is not taxed, even though the donor can deduct the full, current value of the asset to reduce the income tax they would otherwise owe. This is a double tax avoidance scheme that provides huge benefits to the wealthy.

Four European countries have a wealth tax and back in 1990 twelve of them did. The wealth tax has been dropped in eight countries for a variety of reasons, but one was that wealthy individuals in Europe can relatively easily designate a tax-free location as their official residence to avoid the wealth tax. In addition, the wealth taxes were not generating much revenue because the tax rate was low (e.g., 1% to 2%), because exemptions for certain assets or circumstances have been written into the laws, and because of tax avoidance. Furthermore, other wealth-related taxes were viewed as preferable, e.g., taxes on gains or profits when assets are sold, inheritance taxes, property taxes, and taxes on inter-generational gifts. [2]

Senator Elizabeth Warren, as part of her presidential campaign, has proposed a wealth tax for the U.S. that she calls the Ultra-Millionaire Tax. It would apply only to the 0.1% richest households – about 75,000 households – with net wealth (i.e., assets minus debts and other liabilities) of over $50 million. They would pay an annual tax of 2% on net worth over $50 million up to $1 billion and 3% on net worth over $1 billion. This tax is estimated to generate $275 billion per year and, thereby, increase federal government revenue by about 7%. [3]

Warren’s proposed wealth tax would apply to all assets held anywhere in the world by a U.S. citizen. The IRS would be able to grant deferments (i.e., a postponement or delay) in the payment of the tax in extenuating circumstances. To calculate someone’s wealth, Warren notes that the IRS already has rules for valuing most assets for inheritance tax purposes. These rules could be used or they could be improved, and the IRS would be authorized to use cutting-edge valuation techniques for hard-to-value assets. Her proposal includes an increase in the IRS’s enforcement budget to oversee taxpayers subject to the Ultra-Millionaire Tax. A 40% exit tax would be charged on net worth above $50 million for anyone renouncing their U.S. citizenship to avoid the tax. The revenue this proposal would generate is what Senator Warren would use to pay for the programs she has proposed in other policy areas.

Economic inequality in the U.S. is spiraling to unprecedented levels because the wealthy have been using their wealth to skew public policies, such as tax policies, to their benefit. For example, some Republicans in Congress acknowledged that the 2017 tax bill, with its huge tax cuts for the wealthy, was passed to satisfy and reward donors to their campaigns, who were demanding a return on their “investment”. [4]

A wealth tax could be one strategy to address the huge and growing economic inequality in the U.S. It would ask those who have benefited tremendously from the U.S. economic system and our public infrastructure to pay something back to maintain this business environment so that the next generation has the same opportunity to succeed as they did.

[1]      Thornton, A., & Hendricks, G., 6/4/19, “Ending special tax treatment for the very wealthy,” Center for American Progress (https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/reports/2019/06/04/470621/ending-special-tax-treatment-wealthy/)

[2]      Taylor, T., 2/4/19, “Why have other countries been dropping their wealth taxes?” Conversable Economist (http://conversableeconomist.blogspot.com/2019/02/why-have-other-countries-been-dropping.html)

[3]      Warren, E., retrieved 6/12/19, “Ultra-Millionaire Tax,” (https://elizabethwarren.com/ultra-millionaire-tax/)

[4]      Thornton, A., & Hendricks, G., 6/4/19, see above

4 comments

  1. Harry Simmons · · Reply

    The USA is worrying about/debating Socialism. Ha Ha What about Capitalism??? It has been allowed to run amuck for 40 years. Lobbying. Tax breaks Etc. A balance seems to be in order…..

    1. John A Lippitt · · Reply

      Harry, good point! For generations, socialism has been a dirty word, equated with communism. Capitalism has been accepted without question or limitation as the holy grail. Now, even a growing number of the very rich are stepping forward and agreeing with you – that capitalism has run amok and needs to be reined in. I can tell you that the undergraduates in the course I teach do not think that socialism is a dirty word.

  2. This should happen! Of course it will also generate a new tax industry employing new lobbyists and tax lawyers. Kind of a jobs program for those folks.

    1. John A Lippitt · · Reply

      I think most of that tax avoidance industry is already there dodging income and inheritance taxes. This will just give them a little more business. Now if we could get the IRS to really crack down on the shady, abusive stuff some of this industry comes up with, we might actually reduce their business – put a few of them out of business if not in jail.

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