A Wealth Tax


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Most Americans pay an annual wealth tax on their largest asset. It’s called property tax. Each year, they pay an amount equal to a small percentage of the estimated value of their house, and a house is by far the most valuable item that most families own.

The very rich are different. While they pay property taxes too, their homes tend to make up a tiny share of their net worth. The bulk of their assets are not taxed.

In past decades, other taxes — like the corporate tax (the burden of which falls on stockholders) and the estate tax — served almost as de facto wealth taxes. But those other taxes have declined, causing the total federal tax rate on the wealthy to plummet:

Over the same period, wealth inequality has soared:

Today, the wealthy both own a much larger share of the country’s assets than they once did and pay less tax on each dollar of assets. This combination creates problems for everybody else. Many Americans own only modest assets, and the federal government struggles to raise enough tax revenue to pay for society’s needs, like education, health care, transportation, scientific research and the military.

This week, Senate Democratic leaders proposed a solution, in the form of a new kind of wealth tax. People with at least $1 billion in net worth or $100 million in annual income would be taxed each year on the increase in the value of many of their assets.

The fate of this specific tax is uncertain, after Senator Joe Manchin expressed skepticism of it yesterday. But wealth taxes — which also featured in the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign — will probably remain part of the political debate in the years ahead, given the country’s level of inequality.

Today, I want to evaluate the most common objections to wealth taxes. Some are stronger than others.

This is probably the weakest empirical argument against a wealth tax. It’s a version of the same case that opponents of tax increases on the rich always make. And it has a very poor historical record.

When taxes on the rich were much higher than today, in the decades just after World War II, the economy boomed. Since the 1980s, high-end taxes have plummeted, and the U.S. economy has struggled: Economic growth, incomes for most people and other measures of well-being (like life expectancy) have stagnated since the 1980s. One exception was the 1990s — after Bill Clinton had raised income taxes on the rich as well as the corporate tax.

Teasing out cause and effect on these issues is difficult. But there is no good evidence that low taxes on the wealthy help the larger economy.

One part of this argument also has little evidence to support it, while another is more debatable.

The weaker part claims that the wealthy will figure out a way to avoid all the effects of a tax increase. That, too, is historically inaccurate. When the federal government has raised tax rates on the rich, tax payments by the rich have risen.

“Many people have the view that nothing can be done,” Gabriel Zucman, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, has told me. “That’s wrong. Look at history.”

Here’s another way to think about it: If the very rich could actually avoid the effects of tax increases, they probably wouldn’t spend so much money and effort trying to defeat proposed tax increases.

The more serious argument is that creating a new wealth tax would be more logistically difficult than raising existing taxes, like the inheritance tax, corporate tax or income tax. (Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and nearly all Republicans evidently oppose many of those other increases, making them impossible to pass and causing some Democrats to turn their attention to wealth taxes.)

A new wealth tax would require federal officials to do something new: estimate the value of assets each year. They would also have to decide which were subject to taxation. Many experts consider these challenges to be surmountable, but other countries have sometimes struggled with the details.

The federal government has the power to tax income, thanks to the 16th Amendment. It is less clear which wealth the federal government can tax.

The tax code does already include some provisions similar to a wealth tax, like a tax on mutual funds based on their current value. Still, the power to decide what’s constitutional ultimates lies with the Supreme Court. Under Chief Justice John Roberts, the court has been friendly to the interests of the wealthy. The Roberts court has also been aggressive at times about overruling Congress.

Even if the court threw out the wealth tax, other parts of the Democrats’ bill — expansions of health care, education and clean energy — could survive, New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait has pointed out.

A wealth tax is legally and logistically riskier than an increase in existing taxes. But it also has advantages that those other taxes do not. It directly addresses the enormous increase in wealth inequality over recent decades.

Unless the federal government takes steps to reverse that increase — through existing taxes or new ones — economic inequality in the U.S. will almost certainly remain near its current, Gilded Age-like levels.

More from Congress:

  • Democrats are likely to drop a national paid family leave program from President Biden’s spending bill after Manchin opposed it. The U.S. is one of six countries without such a program.

  • Lawmakers are trying to rewrite the tax code in days, a process that usually takes months or years.

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Yes, its Major League Soccer team has won a championship, in 2018. But neither Atlanta’s N.B.A. team nor its W.N.B.A. team nor its N.F.L. team has won a title, in any century. Baseball’s Atlanta Braves have not won a World Series in 26 years, and high-profile college teams have struggled, too. The N.H.L. hockey team left town in 2011.

“The inferiority of Atlanta’s sports teams is nothing less than astounding,” Ben Bussard, an Atlanta native, wrote 13 years ago — and many losses ago — in Bleacher Report. Bussard noted that the rap song “Welcome to Atlanta,” by Jermaine Dupri and Ludacris, managed to celebrate the city without mentioning its sports teams.

But now Atlanta has a chance to change the story. The Braves have made the World Series, with an underdog team that has overcome injuries. Last night, they lost to the Houston Astros, and the best-of-seven series is now tied at one game apiece. Atlanta is only three wins from a very rare celebration.

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The New York Times


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