Taxing the Rich

By ·July 9, 2019
Reed College

The Issue:

Many Americans have not felt the benefits of strong GDP growth in recent decades, as thirty-five years of rising income inequality have concentrated the income growth at the top of the distribution. While the federal income tax system is progressive, it has failed to counter these trends, and some of our tax policy changes have in fact exacerbated inequality. At present, many feel that the U.S. government needs more revenue for urgent fiscal priorities such as infrastructure, yet the federal government is operating with high budget deficits and debt. Thus, as policy-makers search for new revenues, some are eager to increase tax payments by those at the top of the income distribution.

Tax increases for those at the top can achieve two aims: providing revenue resources from those that have experienced the greatest gains in income, and countering economic and social inequalities.

The Facts:

  • Economic inequality has increased dramatically in the United States, and because of this, gains in real GDP per-capita are often not felt by many in our society. (See chart.) In the 35 years after World War II, economic growth was more widely shared, and real incomes doubled for those in the bottom 90 percent of the distribution while growing more slowly for those at the top. However, in the most recent 35 years, the bottom 50 percent of the distribution have experienced stagnant incomes, and those in the 50-90th percentile have experienced far slower income growth than in the prior generation. However, income growth for those in the top 10 percent, and especially the top 1 percent and the top 1/10 of one percent, has been enormous: Over this time period, cumulative income growth has exceeded 200 percent for those in the top one percent, and over 300 percent for those in the top 1/10 of 1 percent. 
  • Despite increasing inequality, recent changes in tax policy have generally not made our tax system more progressive. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act concentrated tax cut benefits at the top of the distribution, and prior decades of cuts in tax rates (for both labor and capital income) have also exacerbated income inequality. These trends have strengthened the case for increasing tax burdens on those at the top of the distribution — both as a way to increase revenue, since much of income growth has materialized at the top of the distribution, and to counter widening inequality. While there are disagreements regarding the extent to which government policy should address inequality, many observers note that economic inequality can be harmful for society; that it leads to the concentration of political and economic power, and it reduces the extent to which American society feels a sense of shared economic prosperity. 
  • Taxing capital is an important part of taxing the rich. Capital income is more concentrated than labor income, and it is a growing share of national income. Thinking among economists about capital taxation has been evolving. In past decades, many economists emphasized the large efficiency costs of taxing capital because capital taxation discourages savings and investment — hurting the economy in the long run. But, early arguments about the inefficiency of capital taxation were often based on overly simplistic theoretical models; more realistic models suggest higher capital tax rates, similar to those that apply to labor. The case for taxing capital is particularly strong once one recognizes that large parts of “capital” income are in fact rents, or above-normal returns to investments that are received by those with market power or luck. 
  • Taxing capital is an important part of a healthy tax system. The wealthiest taxpayers often have some discretion in terms of the form in which they earn their income. If labor income is taxed more heavily than capital income, those with discretion may choose to receive more of their income as capital income. (For example, entrepreneurs may choose to take more of their compensation as capital income rather than as wages.) Thus, there are good arguments for taxing income from labor and income from capital at the same rate for particular taxpayers.   
  • The corporate tax is an important part of taxing capital, especially since about 70 percent of U.S. equity income goes untaxed at the individual level, and the corporate tax is mostly borne by those at the top of the income distribution. Thus, proposals to improve our revenue collection from the corporate tax are an important part of taxing the rich. Unfortunately, the recent Tax Cuts and Jobs Act moved the tax system in the other direction, as corporate tax rate cuts were undertaken without sufficiently broadening the tax base. As a consequence, corporate tax collections are shrinking in both absolute terms and as a share of GDP.  
  • Several policy-makers have proposals for increasing tax burdens on the rich. Senator Elizabeth Warren, for instance, has suggested a new type of tax: a wealth tax of 2 % on those with wealth over $50 million (with a surcharge for those over $1 billion). Unlike the current system, which tends to impose taxes on the income generated by an asset, the Warren proposal would tax the value of the asset itself on an annual basis — the closest example of this would be the property taxes paid by homeowners on the value of their homes, but the proposed wealth tax would instead apply to all assets above $50 million. Some economists suggest that this could raise substantial revenue though there are doubts regarding how much. There are some implementation issues concerning valuing financial assets and combatting tax avoidance, and there are also constitutional issues posed by the tax. Although many legal experts deem a wealth tax constitutional, the constitutionality of such a tax is likely to be challenged in the courts and may ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court.
  • In theory, taxes on investment income should be equivalent to a wealth tax, since investment income is simply a return on one’s stock of wealth, and tax rates could be adjusted to reach the same burden. One difficulty with investment income taxes is the fact that capital gains are only taxed upon realization (when they are sold), which gives investors an incentive to keep financial assets in order to benefit from the tax-free accumulation of returns. Therefore, some have suggested taxing capital income as it accrues, including a recent floating of this idea from Senator Ron Wyden as well as more scholarly proposals. This would require either mark-to-market taxation (taxing investment income as it is earned, even if the asset is not sold) or deferring tax until sale, but assigning an interest charge that would accrue on the prior tax due. Both raise important implementation issues, although today’s digitalization of financial information helps solve some problems.
  • Repealing the step-up in basis at death would also be an important reform. At present, when a capital asset is inherited, those that receive it avoid capital gains tax on the unrealized gain, as the new basis is the price of the asset upon transfer. For example, a person who buys stock priced at $200 and sells it for $1000 has to pay capital gains taxes on their $800 gain. But, if the person dies and bequeaths the stock, the heir can reset the value (basis) of the stock to the $1,000 price upon transfer — meaning that if they sell it, they do not pay taxes on the $800 gain. This reform would reduce the incentive to hold assets in order to delay capital gains tax upon realization, and it also prevents capital income from going entirely untaxed. 
  • There are also proposals to increase estate taxation, including a proposal from Senator Bernie Sanders. Very few estates pay the estate tax (less than one-tenth of one percent at present), and there is little evidence that estate taxation affects savings incentives for decedents or harms businesses or farms. Also, one might usefully consider incentive effects on heirs, since inheritance can dampen heirs’ incentives to work and save.
  • While some have informally suggested increasing tax rates at the top as high as 70 percent, such high tax rates are likely to be more distortionary than tax increases at lower levels. Also, since well-off taxpayers have discretion about the form in which they earn their income, it is best to avoid large differences in tax rates across different forms of income. At present, there is substantial room to raise revenue on the rich by simply closing the loopholes affecting corporate income and the income of top taxpayers. One illustrative example of such a plan suggested that it could raise $2.8 trillion over 10 years.

What this Means:

In recent decades, gains in national income have failed to reach many Americans due to increasing income inequality; countering such trends requires increasing the progressivity of our tax system. Proposals that seek to reduce tax avoidance and harmonize the tax treatment of different types of income are likely to raise more revenue at lower rates than more narrow proposals. Many new proposals provide a useful starting point, but they all need careful consideration in order to be ready for implementation. It is also important to remember that economic inequality is not just a “top end” problem. The tax system can also usefully help those at the bottom of the income distribution who have experienced stagnant wage growth in recent decades. Proposals to expand the earned income tax credit do just that, by subsidizing the wages of low-income workers. Pairing an expansion of the earned income tax credit with careful, efficient methods of taxing the rich would tackle economic inequality from both ends.

  • Editor's note: Kimberly Clausing is author of "Open: The Progressive Case for Free Trade, Immigration, and Global Capital" (Harvard University Press 2019).

  • Topics:

    Inequality / Tax Policy / Wealth
    Written by The EconoFact Network. To contact with any questions or comments, please email [email protected].