The Rich Really Do Pay Lower Taxes than You

The Rich Really Do Pay Lower Taxes than You

The New York Times  David Leonhardt  October 8, 2019

Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett speaks during an interview in Omaha, Neb., Monday, May 7, 2018, with Liz Claman on Fox Business Network's "Countdown to the Closing Bell". (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Almost a decade ago, Warren Buffett made a claim that would become famous. He said that he paid a lower tax rate than his secretary, thanks to the many loopholes and deductions that benefit the wealthy.

His claim sparked a debate about the fairness of the tax system. In the end, the expert consensus was that, whatever Buffett’s specific situation, most wealthy Americans did not actually pay a lower tax rate than the middle class. “Is it the norm?” fact-checking outfit PolitiFact asked. “No.”

Time for an update: It’s the norm now.

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For the first time on record, the 400 wealthiest Americans last year paid a lower total tax rate — spanning federal, state and local taxes — than any other income group, according to newly released data.

The overall tax rate on the richest 400 households last year was only 23%, meaning that their combined tax payments equaled less than one quarter of their total income. That was down from 70% in 1950 and 47% in 1980.

For middle-class and poor families, the picture is different. Federal income taxes have also declined modestly, but these families haven’t benefited much, if at all, from the decline in the corporate tax or estate tax. And they now pay more in payroll taxes (which finance Medicare and Social Security) than in the past. Overall, their taxes have remained fairly flat.

The combined result is that over the last 75 years the U.S. tax system has become radically less progressive.

The data here come from the most important book on government policy that I’ve read in a long time — called “The Triumph of Injustice,” to be released next week. The authors are Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, both professors at the University of California, Berkeley, who have done pathbreaking work on taxes. Saez has won the award that goes to the top academic economist under age 40, and Zucman was recently profiled on the cover of BusinessWeek magazine as “the wealth detective.”

They have constructed a historical database that shows how much households at different points along the income spectrum have paid in taxes going back to 1913, when the federal income tax began. The story they tell is maddening — and yet ultimately energizing.

“Many people have the view that nothing can be done,” Zucman told me. “Our case is, ‘No, that’s wrong. Look at history.’ ” As they write in the book: “Societies can choose whatever level of tax progressivity they want.” When the United States has raised tax rates on the wealthy and made rigorous efforts to collect taxes, it has succeeded in doing so. And it can succeed again.

Saez and Zucman portray the history of U.S. taxes as a struggle between people who want to tax the rich and those who want to protect the fortunes of the rich. The story starts in the 17th century, when northern colonies created more progressive tax systems than Europe had. Massachusetts even enacted a wealth tax, which covered land, ships, jewelry livestock and more.

The southern colonies, by contrast, were hostile to taxation. Southern plantation owners worried that taxes could undermine slavery, as historian Robin Einhorn has explained, and made sure to keep tax rates low and tax collection ineffective. (The hostility to taxes ultimately hampered the Confederacy’s ability to raise money and fight the Civil War.)

By the middle of the 20th century, the high-tax advocates had prevailed. The United States had arguably the world’s most progressive tax code, with a top income-tax rate of 91% and a corporate tax rate above 50%.


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