I’m rarely in agreement with anything Elizabeth Warren says, but last week, while on the social-justice warpath, she accidentally stumbled onto a concept I’ve long endorsed: a wealth tax. Not that she got it right, of course. For one thing, there’s the question of whether it’s even constitutional: the Wall Street Journal, of course, says no; more liberal economists say yes. And certainly there’s something un-American about penalizing successful entrepeneurs, even those as unappetizing as Bond villain Jeff Bezos of the Amazon Washington Post, and space aliens such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Running as fast as she can to the left of the Young Turkettes in the Democrat Party, Warren had little time or inclination to think her scheme through, with the result that it’s largely just virtue-signaling from one of the phoniest members of the U.S. Senate, which is saying something.
Here are the pros:
But according to UC Berkeley economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, who advised her on the proposal, the tax would be 2% on net worth above $50 million and another 1% on net worth above $1 billion. They say it would affect about 75,000 U.S. households, or less than 0.1% of the total, and raise $2.75 trillion over 10 years. That’s about 0.1% of gross domestic product per year.
Warren’s announcement, made Thursday via Twitter, is certain to be met with two big questions: Is a wealth tax constitutional, and is it necessary? Legal scholars say the answer to the first is yes, and economists (and the evidence of your own eyes) say the answer to the second also is yes.
The notion that a wealth tax is unconstitutional derives from a provision of the Constitution prohibiting “direct” taxation unless it’s “apportioned among the states.” That’s generally taken to mean that the amount raised from each state must be proportionate to its population….
But two legal scholars say this constitutional interpretation is wrong. They’re Dawn Johnson of Indiana University and Walter Dellinger, a former U.S. solicitor general, of Duke University. Their analysis appeared last year, and is regarded as the leading work on the issue, though their position isn’t unanimously held. Johnson and Dellinger dismiss the constitutionality issue as “conventional wisdom” that is casually repeated but is the product of “faulty constitutional understanding.”
That brings us to the question of whether a wealth tax is needed. The answer here is unmistakably yes. The concentration of wealth in America has reached levels that make the gilt of the 19th century Gilded Age look like dross. There’s sound economic and social sense in taxing the hell out of excessive incomes and excessive wealth.
No matter how many academics she persuades to sign on to this ideological project, the plain fact is that the founders specifically prohibited such a tax. A well-informed reader notes:
The 16th Amendment authorizes Congress to tax “incomes, from whatever source derived.” It does not give Congress the power to tax balance sheets as well.
At the Constitutional Convention, Gouverneur Morris explained in plain English what every delegate understood “direct taxation” to be: it is when the federal government attempts to “stretch its hand directly into the pockets of the people,” rather than acting through the intermediary of a state. Direct taxes, the delegates decided, would be authorized only if each state paid the same per capita amount – i.e., only if the taxes were apportioned to population. Warren’s proposal to stretch her hand directly into the pockets of the people would not be apportioned and so it would violate both the 16th Amendment (failing as an income tax) and Article I, Section 9, Clause 4 (failing because it is an unapportioned direct tax).
Again: maybe. Still, the fact remains that for most of our history, the federal government was financed by tariffs and excise taxes: that is, via trade and consumption taxes; an example of an excise tax today would be the taxes hidden in a price of a gallon of gas in your state. It wasn’t until the 16th Amendment — the first of the so-called “Progressive Era” amendments — that the feds did exactly what Gouverneur Morris feared, and reached into our collective pockets on a permanent, ongoing basis.
Today, the vast bulk of revenue comes in the form of the income tax and the “payroll” tax, which finances Social Security and Medicare via both a direct tax on the worker and an indirect tax — the so-called “employer’s share” — that is simply factored into a lower actual take-home wage for the worker. Compounding this highway robbery is withholding, which allows the government to preemptively rob you at the pay window itself, confiscating a certain amount of your income that you or may or may not actually owe, then forcing you to petition for its return at tax season in the form of an interest-free “tax refund” that you generally have to pay an accountant to claim for you.
Amity Shlaes has a few choice words about withholding, which came about, naturally, during the FDR administration:
In 1942, not long after Pearl Harbor, lawmakers raised income taxes radically, with rates that aimed to capture twice as much revenue as in the previous year. They also imposed the income tax on tens of millions of Americans who had never been acquainted with the levy before. The change was so dramatic that the chroniclers of that period have coined a phrase to describe it. They say that the “class tax” became a “mass tax.”
The new rates were law. But Americans were ill-prepared to face a new and giant tax bill. A Gallup poll from the period showed that only some 5 million of the 34 million people who were subject to the tax for the first time were saving to make their payment. In those days, March 15, not April 15, was the nation’s annual tax deadline.
The Treasury nervously launched a huge public relations campaign to remind Americans of their new duties. A Treasury Department poster exhorted citizens: “You are one of 50,000,000 Americans who must fill out an income tax form by March 15. DO IT NOW!” For wartime theatergoers, Disney had prepared an animated short film featuring citizen Donald Duck laboring over his tax return beside a bottle of aspirin. Donald claimed exemptions and dependent credits for Huey, Dewey, and Louie.
As March 15, 1943 neared, though, it became clear that many citizens still were not filing returns. Henry Morgenthau, the Treasury secretary, confronted colleagues about the nightmarish prospect of mass tax evasion: “Suppose we have to go out and try to arrest five million people?”
Crazy, right? So they did the next best thing — they invented withholding.
Enter Beardsley Ruml, man of ideas. At Macy’s, he had observed that customers didn’t like big bills. They preferred making payments bit by bit, in the installment plan, even if they had to pay for the pleasure with interest. So Ruml devised a plan, which he unfolded to his colleagues at the Federal Reserve and to anyone in Washington who would listen. The government would get business to do its work, collecting taxes for it. Employers would retain a percentage of taxes from workers every week–say, 20 percent–and forward it directly to Washington’s war chest. This would hide the size of the new taxes from the worker. No longer would the worker ever have to look his tax bill square in the eye. Workers need never even see the money they were forgoing. Withholding as we know it today was born.
This was more than change, it was transformation. Government would put its hand into the taxpayer’s pocket and grab its share of tax–without asking.
The sheer genius of it! Within the span of just three decades, America had crossed the Rubicon of both an income tax and a social-safety net, thanks to the collaboration of private employers and the federal government, and enforcement at gunpoint by the IRS. They called their scheme “pay as you go.”
As a result, the federal deficit — and, later, the state deficits — took off and never looked back. (You can chart the fiscal downfall of my state, Connecticut, from the introduction of a “temporary” income tax in 1991.) Tariffs were subject to political realities; excise taxes are consumption taxes, and consumers can almost always cut back when times are hard. But the income tax — which, when you stop to think of it, is a hidden tax on everything — promised governments a nearly unlimited revenue source, extracted as painlessly (certainly, as invisibly) as possible.
Consider these charts:
That’s some spike there, pardner! Now this:
And finally this:
Leaving aside WWII, which provoked this whole mess, the debt as a percentage of GDP is far greater than it was in the first century-plus of the Republic. And yet, the wealth disparity between the few and many is probably greater now than it was during the pre-income tax days of the Robber Barons. How is that possible?
Because the income tax was never designed simply to soak the rich, but to prevent the working classes from ever moving up.
Which brings me back to Warren’s idea. For there are two classes of Americans for whom the income tax is of absolutely no moment: the nearly 50 percent of the population who pay almost no income taxes at all and the super-rich, who have already amassed great wealth and live off their savings and their capital gains, which are taxed at a lower rate than sweat income. Not to mention the very wealthy who live off of inheritances, or who, like John Forbes Kerry, married their money — twice.
The Internal Revenue Service has recently released new data on individual income taxes for calendar year 2014, showing the number of taxpayers, adjusted gross income, and income tax shares by income percentiles. The data demonstrates that the U.S. individual income tax continues to be very progressive, borne mainly by the highest income earners.
- In 2014, 139.6 million taxpayers reported earning $9.71 trillion in adjusted gross income and paid $1.37 trillion in individual income taxes.
- The share of income earned by the top 1 percent of taxpayers rose to 20.6 percent in 2014. Their share of federal individual income taxes also rose, to 39.5 percent.
- In 2014, the top 50 percent of all taxpayers paid 97.3 percent of all individual income taxes while the bottom 50 percent paid the remaining 2.7 percent.
- The top 1 percent paid a greater share of individual income taxes (39.5 percent) than the bottom 90 percent combined (29.1 percent).
- The top 1 percent of taxpayers paid a 27.1 percent individual income tax rate, which is more than seven times higher than taxpayers in the bottom 50 percent (3.5 percent).
One would think this grotesquely undemocratic disparity would satisfy descendants of the Tammany Wigwam like Warren and her ilk. But no. Hence her wealth tax. But such a tax gives the lie to the virtues of the “progressive” income tax, since the country has both record tax revenues and record deficits and debt. To a typical Democrat, this merely indicates that taxes aren’t high enough; and since the Democrat donor base now consists not only of the super-rich but the obscenely wealthy, nobody on that side stands to suffer from increasing income taxes.
Who does? Why, the middle class, the same group of people Roosevelt and Ruml targeted to finance the American war effort and whom they have been milking ever since. Do the Kennedys pay income taxes on the fortune their crooked paterfamilias, Joe, amassed? Does the Fake Irishman, Kerry, pay income taxes on his two wives’ fortunes? It might have been a good idea to demand that Gigolo John declare his wives’ wealth as personal income and then tax the hell out of it, beggaring him. If we had, there’d be a lot less wind in the sails of his yachts.
The real benefit of Warren’s proposal, therefore, is not that it might be enacted (it won’t). It is, rather, to make manifest the grotesque unfairness of the income tax, which slipped in under cover of progressive darkness and was sold as a “soak the rich” measure, relying on the average American’s inability to distinguish wealth from work. “Work hard and you’ll get ahead in life,” was the mantra they were fed, and like suckers everywhere, they fell for it. Instead, the harder they worked, and the more money they earned, the more the government of the rich robbed them of the fruits of their labors. Those government workers who couldn’t stand to have even one paycheck deferred have nobody to blame but the framers of the 16th amendment.
A repeal of the 16th would at least give the middle class a fighting chance, and a return to reliance on tariffs and consumption taxes would give everyone a choice: buy or save? How many cheap flat-screen televisions do you need, anyway?
Absent rich wives or criminally wealthy grandparents, the only way to accumulate wealth in America today is not to work at a high-income job, in which you will be robbed annually, but to work for yourself and make a big score all at once, take the one-time tax hit, and then never “earn” another dime in your life. Then you too can be Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg and laugh all the way to the bank, tax-free. Other than that, buddy, you pay as you go.