With the 2020 presidential race well underway, Democratic candidates and policymakers have begun present their ideas on how to remedy what they perceive is a tax code that favors Americaâs wealthiest citizens. Taxing the uber-rich has long been an initiative supported by progressives, and it was amplified in the wake of last yearâs sweeping tax reform, which cut taxes for the wealthy and corporations alike.
Some plans have come in the form of structured formal policy proposals (see Elizabeth Warrenâs Ultra-Millionaire Tax) drafted with the help of economics professors, while others have made headlines based on comments in nationally-televised interviews (a la Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezâs 70% income tax idea). If Democrats can pull off a win in 2020, these early proposals could offer insight into what might be in store for the tax code.
All of the jargon and acronyms surrounding the subject of new taxes can obscure exactly what presidential hopefuls and pundits are proposing. Check out the table below to understand the basics of whatâs currently being discussed, as well as ideas that were under consideration in the not-too-distant past.
Itâs clear that while there are many ways of skinning a cat, the basic differences between the proposals lie in what exactly is being taxed. Most Americans probably understand the basic definition of an income tax, but things get more complex when discussing taxation of net worth and wealth.
When experts and politicians discuss a wealth tax, they almost always mean a tax on net worth. If you own a business and private assets worth a total of $100 million, but you also carry $75 million in liabilities (such as debt), then your net worth â aka your wealth â is $25 million.
What makes a potential wealth tax, like the one Sen. Warren has proposed, so unusual is that it targets the passive wealth of an individual. Most taxes levied in America involve some sort of transaction â whether itâs a tax on the income you earn from a job, a sales tax you pay at a point of sale, a capital gains tax on a stock sold, or even an inheritance tax you pay when you take possession of an estate. With a wealth tax, no transaction need happen for the tax to be levied. Thereâs no hiding from the IRS â theyâll be coming for that collection of Van Goghs, whether you sell them or not.
Simply put, wealth is any asset an individual possesses that has monetary value. Some examples include:
Bernie Sandersâ proposal would tax the wealthy on their estates. Estates worth between $3.5 million and $10 million would be taxed at 45% of the estateâs value, with the tax climbing as the value of the estate grows, reaching a peak of 77% of any estate worth $1 billion or more.
To demonstrate how much money his bill would raise, Sanders assumes the net worth of Jeff Bezos at $131.9 billion and claims the Amazon CEO would have a maximum tax liability of $101.3 billion on his estate under his legislation â almost $49 billion more than Bezos would owe under the current law.
Itâs impossible to predict what a hypothetical wealth tax would actually look like after surviving the legislative process needed to make the new tax law.
âIn terms of whatâs taxed, itâs whatever Congress wants,â said Howard Gleckman, senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.
Even with the candidate proposals out now, thereâs no certainty that their campaign proposals would actual survive a battle in Congress. Hypothetically, however, the wealth tax championed by Sen. Warren would apply to individuals with a net worth of $50 million (with an additional tax for those with a net worth of $1 billion and more). If her âUltra-Millionaire Taxâ passed as currently proposed, the results would be:
An analysis of Sen. Warrenâs wealth tax by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, both economics professors at the University of California, Berkeley, estimates it would directly affect only 75,000 households and raise $2.75 trillion over the course of 10 years.
With Democratic leaders advancing ambitious and expensive new policy programs, from the New Green Deal to a national single-payer healthcare system, a wealth tax on Americaâs richest citizens is seen by some as necessary to raise the revenue needed to fund these sweeping initiatives.
Sen. Warren, for instance, recently unveiled a plan to help provide child care and early education for every American family. The Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act would guarantee âthat every family, regardless of their income or employment, can access high-quality, affordable child care options for their children from birth to school entryâ and would cost the federal government $70 billion every year, according to an analysis by Moodyâs Analytics. The senatorâs document states the revenue raised by her proposed wealth tax would more than cover the cost of universal child care.
Rep. Ocasio-Cortez also swings for the fences with the New Green Deal resolution she introduced to Congress, which tasks the federal government with âeliminating pollution and greenhouse gas emissions as much as technologically feasibleâ and âmeeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable and zero-emission energy sources,â among other things. When asked about the practicalities of meeting these goals in an interview on 60 Minutes, the freshman congresswoman stated that âpeople are going to have to start paying their fair share in taxes.â
Assessment and enforcement. One of the biggest concerns critics have of a possible wealth tax is how it can be assessed and enforced. Determining the wealth of the individual isnât as easy as asking Alexa âHow rich is Jeff Bezos?â and then sending him a bill. The IRS will have to dedicate significant resources to evaluating the value of a taxpayerâs private assets and businesses owned, a challenge Sen. Warrenâs online explanation of her wealth tax proposes solving with the tightening of loopholes in the current tax code and increasing the IRSâs enforcement budget. The proposed tax also includes a one-time 40% tax on wealth above $50 million of any citizen renouncing their citizenship to flee to more tax-friendly countries.
But that kind of bureaucratic expansion runs counter to how policymakers have traditionally viewed the role of the IRS. According to Gleckman, for decades, âall of the pressure has been on reducing IRS staff and limiting its ability to do audits.â
âWhatâs striking about it,â he continued, âis it doesnât seem to matter whether the Democrats are in charge or the Republicans â thereâs very few politicians who are ever interested in giving more resources to the IRS.â
A drain on the job creators. Another argument that some wealth tax advance skeptics have is that wildly successful entrepreneurs wonât want to invest in their businesses (which would be considered as part of their wealth) and the economy would lose out on the new jobs that investment would create.
âThe job creator argument is not entirely specious,â said Gleckman. âYou have created, at least on the margin, a modest disincentive for very wealthy Americans to invest [in their businesses] and maybe created an incentive for them to invest outside of the United States.â