KEEPING THE RICH FROM GETTING EVEN RICHER

The rich have been getting dramatically richer, generally at the expense of the rest of us, for the last 40 years. My previous post identified four ways the U.S. tax system favors the rich:

  • Lower tax rates on the types of income (i.e., unearned income) that are prevalent among the wealthy,
  • Weak enforcement of tax laws that allows the wealthy to engage in substantial illegal tax evasion,
  • The lack of a wealth tax on anything other than one’s home, and
  • Tax loopholes that allow the wealthy to significantly reduce the amount of income tax they pay.

Federal tax laws and regulations are, obviously, the result of policy decisions made by elected officials (i.e., Congress and the President) and bureaucrats in the executive branch who report to the President. Therefore, these four ways that the tax system is tilted in favor of the wealthy can and should be changed.

First, the tax rates on unearned income should be raised. There’s a strong argument for making the tax rates on unearned income the same as on earned income and there’s no good reason to tax unearned income at a lower rate than earned income. It would be fairer to treat all kinds of income the same and this would eliminate the perverse incentive to manipulate income to have it fall into a category with a lower tax rate.

Tax rates in general, for both unearned and earned income, should be made more progressive. This would make our tax system fairer. The current top income tax rate is 37%. In the 1950s, the top tax rate was over 90% and in 1980, it was 70%. [1] So, the rich have gotten huge tax cuts over the last 70 years. And by the way, the economy was doing just fine in the 1950s with those higher tax rates. Raising the top rate by 1% would increase government revenue for needed programs and investments by about $12 billion per year. President Biden has proposed increasing the top rate to 39.6% (where it was before the 2017 Republican tax cut). This would generate about $31 billion in annual revenue.

Second, the budget of the IRS needs to be increased to strengthen enforcement of tax laws. It is estimated that every dollar spent on enforcement will reduce tax evasion by about $10. President Biden has proposed increasing IRS funding by about $8 billion per year and estimates that this would decrease tax evasion and increase government revenue by about $70 billion per year.

The IRS’s funding has been cut dramatically in recent years. This has reduced its ability to enforce tax laws and stop tax evasion. According to a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report, from 2010 to 2018, the IRS’s annual budget declined by 20% and its staff decreased by 22%. Funding for enforcement fell by nearly 33%. Reviews of individual tax returns fell by 46%, while reviews of corporate tax returns fell by 37%. With less money and fewer staff, the IRS has had reduced capacity to enforce tax laws. [2] Nonetheless, the IRS is auditing low-income households, particularly those claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-wage workers, at about twice the average rate that it audits the overall population.

The CBO estimated that $381 billion per year of taxes owed are not collected, mostly because of under-reporting of income by wealthy Americans. Because nearly all wage income is reported to the IRS by employers, unearned income and business income are far more likely to be under-reported. Wealthy Americans receive far more of these kinds of income than middle- and lower-income households. Therefore, the wealthy are the primary ones guilty of tax evasion by under-reporting income and are the beneficiaries of reduced IRS enforcement.

Third, a wealth tax would be an important step in making our tax system fairer, reducing economic inequality, and limiting the ability of families to perpetuate multi-million-dollar fortunes across generations, which is contributing to the emergence of an oligarchy in American society and politics. (See my previous posts on oligarchy in America here and here.) Senators Warren and Sanders have proposed a wealth tax that would place a 2% annual tax on wealth over $50 million, rising to 3% on wealth over $1 billion. It is estimated that such a wealth tax would raise $300 billion a year in revenue for the federal government.

Fourth, tax loopholes for the wealthy should be closed. There are too many of them to go into detail or provide an exhaustive list. As a starting point, we should:

  • Eliminate the “carried interest” loophole for managers of real estate, venture capital, private equity, and hedge funds that lets them pay the lower unearned income tax rates on the income they earn from their jobs,
  • Reduce the amount of money that can be given as tax-free gifts,
  • Reduce the amount of money that can be put tax-free into retirement accounts,
  • Reduce the amount of money that can be transferred tax-free in an estate, and
  • Eliminate the “stepped up basis” law that allows for tax-free transfers of assets that have increased in value. (See my previous post for more details on these tax loopholes.)

I encourage you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators and tell them you support policy changes such as those above that would make our tax system fairer, stop the runaway increase in economic inequality, and generate revenue to pay for needed government programs, such as improving infrastructure and providing better supports for children and families. You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

I also encourage you to contact President Biden and to tell him you support his policy changes and others that would make our tax system fairer, reduce economic inequality, and generate revenue to pay for needed government programs. Contact the White House at https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact.

[1]      Reich, R., 4/2/21, “Tax the rich. Here’s how,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2021/04/02/tax-rich-heres-how)

[2]      Congressional Budget Office, July 2020, “Trends in the Internal Revenue Service’s funding and enforcement,” https://www.cbo.gov/system/files/2020-07/56422-CBO-IRS-enforcement.pdf

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