America invented progressive taxation. And there was a time when leading American politicians were proud to proclaim their willingness to tax the wealthy, not just to raise revenue, but to limit excessive concentration of economic power.“It is important,” said Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, “to grapple with the problems connected with the amassing of enormous fortunes” — some of them, he declared, “swollen beyond all healthy limits.”Today we are once again living in an era of extraordinary wealth concentrated in the hands of a few people, with the net worth of the wealthiest 0.1 percent of Americans almost equal to that of the bottom 90 percent combined. And this concentration of wealth is growing; as Thomas Piketty famously argued in his book “Capital in the 21st Century,” we seem to be
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America invented progressive taxation. And there was a time when leading American politicians were proud to proclaim their willingness to tax the wealthy, not just to raise revenue, but to limit excessive concentration of economic power.
“It is important,” said Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, “to grapple with the problems connected with the amassing of enormous fortunes” — some of them, he declared, “swollen beyond all healthy limits.”
Today we are once again living in an era of extraordinary wealth concentrated in the hands of a few people, with the net worth of the wealthiest 0.1 percent of Americans almost equal to that of the bottom 90 percent combined. And this concentration of wealth is growing; as Thomas Piketty famously argued in his book “Capital in the 21st Century,” we seem to be heading toward a society dominated by vast, often inherited fortunes.
So can today’s politicians rise to the challenge? Well, Elizabeth Warren has released an impressive proposal for taxing extreme wealth. And whether or not she herself becomes the Democratic nominee for president, it says good things about her party that something this smart and daring is even part of the discussion.
The Warren proposal would impose a 2 percent annual tax on an individual household’s net worth in excess of $50 million, and an additional 1 percent on wealth in excess of $1 billion. The proposal was released along with an analysis by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman of Berkeley, two of the world’s leading experts on inequality.
Saez and Zucman found that this tax would affect only a small number of very wealthy people — around 75,000 households. But because these households are so wealthy, it would raise a lot of revenue, around $2.75 trillion over the next decade.
Make no mistake: This is a pretty radical plan.
I asked Saez how much it would raise the share of income (as opposed to wealth) that the economic elite pays in taxes. His estimate was that it would raise the average tax rate on the top 0.1 percent to 48 percent from 36 percent, and bring the average tax on the top 0.01 percent up to 57 percent. Those are high numbers, although they’re roughly comparable to average tax rates in the 1950s.
Would such a plan be feasible? Wouldn’t the rich just find ways around it? Saez and Zucman argue, based on evidence from Denmark and Sweden, both of which used to have significant wealth taxes, that it wouldn’t lead to large-scale evasion if the tax applied to all assets and was adequately enforced.
Wouldn’t it hurt incentives? Probably not much. Think about it: How much would entrepreneurs be deterred by the prospect that, if their big ideas pan out, they’d have to pay additional taxes on their second $50 million?
It’s true that the Warren plan would limit the ability of the already incredibly wealthy to make their fortunes even bigger, and pass them on to their heirs. But slowing or reversing our drift toward a society ruled by oligarchic dynasties is a feature, not a bug.
And I’ve been struck by the reactions of tax experts like Lily Batchelder and David Kamin; while they don’t necessarily endorse the Warren plan, they clearly see it as serious and worthy of consideration. It is, writes Kamin, “addressed at a real problem” and “goes big as it should.” Warren, says The Times, has been “nerding out”; well, the nerds are impressed.
But do ideas this bold stand a chance in 21st-century American politics? The usual suspects are, of course, already comparing Warren to Nicolás Maduro or even Joseph Stalin, despite her actually being more like Teddy Roosevelt or, for that matter, Dwight Eisenhower. More important, my sense is that a lot of conventional political wisdom still assumes that proposals to sharply raise taxes on the wealthy are too left-wing for American voters.
But public opinion surveys show overwhelming support for raising taxes on the rich. One recent poll even found that 45 percent of self-identified Republicans support Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s suggestion of a top rate of 70 percent.
By the way, polls also show overwhelming public support for increasing, not cutting, spending on Medicare and Social Security. Strange to say, however, we rarely hear politicians who demand “entitlement reform” dismissed as too right-wing to be taken seriously.
And it’s not just polls suggesting that a bold assault on economic inequality might be politically viable. Political scientists studying the behavior of billionaires find that while many of them push for lower taxes, they do so more or less in secret, presumably because they realize just how unpopular their position really is. This “stealth politics” is, by the way, one reason billionaires can seem much more liberal than they actually are — only the handful of liberals among them speak out in public.
The bottom line is that there may be far more scope for a bold progressive agenda than is dreamed of in most political punditry. And Elizabeth Warren has just taken an important step on that agenda, pushing her party to go big. Let’s hope her rivals — some of whom are also quite impressive — follow her lead.