The Trouble With Taxing Wealth

Elizabeth Warren’s proposed tax on net worth seems like a nearly surgical strike at inequality, but it may not be efficient

The median U.S. family’s income, adjusted for inflation, fell 4% between 2007 and 2016, while its wealth plummeted 20%, according to Federal Reserve figures. For the richest 10% of families, median income rose 9% while wealth leapt 27%.
More than 80% of American households had less wealth in 2016 than on the eve of the last recession, in great part because their homes, the principal asset for most families, were below their precrisis values whereas stocks, whose ownership is concentrated among the rich, have roughly doubled since 2007..
.. This poses a number of challenges. For the middle class, stagnant wealth limits their ability to
  • buy a home,
  • pay for college or
  • respond to a financial emergency.

Wealth imbalances may also undercut economic growth because assets, which typically rise in response to interest rate cuts, are concentrated among people who are less inclined to spend.

This poses a number of challenges. For the middle class, stagnant wealth limits their ability to buy a home, pay for college or respond to a financial emergency. Wealth imbalances may also undercut economic growth because assets, which typically rise in response to interest rate cuts, are concentrated among people who are less inclined to spend.

For policy makers who want to tax the rich more, this limits the reach of income and consumption taxes. Shielding capital income leaves a big chunk of the richest families’ incomes untouched by taxes, says Greg Leiserson, director of tax policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a left-of-center think tank.

.. Ms. Warren estimates only 75,000 families would pay her tax, yet it would raise $2.75 trillion over 10 years.

..  It was barely a year ago that Republicans slashed the U.S. corporate tax rate to closer to international levels in hopes of juicing growth. A wealth tax would go in the opposite direction. For example, on an investment in a company averaging 8% annual returns, a shareholder may expect her holdings to grow 8% per year. A 3% wealth tax on that increase represents, on average, an implicit 37.5% income tax, on top of the corporate taxes

And unlike the corporate tax, it would have to be paid even if the company made no money that year.

.. That wouldn’t necessarily undercut growth, because the U.S. could turn to foreign savings to finance an investment. This, however, means foreigners would take a bigger share of U.S. income.

.. There may be more effective ways to tax wealth. A large chunk of capital gains are never taxed because shareholders bequeath shares to their heirs without selling them. President Barack Obama proposed in one of his budgets taxing unrealized capital gains at death. 

Adam Looney, a Brookings Institution economist who worked on the proposal, says it would have raised roughly $200 billion over a decade. Mr. Auerbach says taxation at death seems to have less effect on the saving of the wealthy than taxation during life.

.. An even better response would be to attack the concentration of economic power that results in monopoly-like profits by reducing barriers to competition. Competition policy, unlike tax policy, faces no trade off between equality and growth.

Elizabeth Warren Wants a Wealth Tax. How Would That Even Work?

There are other tools that don’t involve quite the risks and challenges of targeting the richest families.

When the United States government wants to raise money from individuals, its mode of choice, for more than a century, has been to tax what people earn — the income they receive from work or investments.

But what if instead the government taxed the wealth you had accumulated?

That is the idea behind a policy Senator Elizabeth Warren has embraced in her presidential campaign. It represents a more substantial rethinking of the federal government’s approach to taxation than anything a major presidential candidate has proposed in recent memory — a new wealth tax that would have enormous implications for inequality.

It would shift more of the burden of paying for government toward the families that have accumulated fortunes in the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars. And over time, such a tax would make it less likely that such fortunes develop.

It would create big new challenges for the I.R.S. in ensuring compliance. There is a reason many European countries that once had a wealth tax have abandoned it in the last couple of decades.

And that’s before you get to the legal and political challenges. There is an open debate around whether a wealth tax is constitutional. And some of the most powerful families in the country would certainly deploy their vast resources against a wealth tax, and against any candidate who embraces it.

The comedian Chris Rock had a routine in the early 2000s in which he expounded on the distinction between those who are rich and those who are wealthy.

Shaquille O’Neal, the star basketball player, was rich, Mr. Rock said. The team owner who signed his paycheck was wealthy. And that, in a nutshell, gets at the conceptual difference between trying to tax people’s income, as the tax code does today, versus their wealth.

The C.E.O. of Walmart makes about $22 million a year. He is rich by any definition. But the Walton family, descendants of the company’s founder, are mind-bogglingly wealthy. The Bloomberg Billionaires index estimates that Sam Walton’s three living children are worth around $45 billion each, putting them each among the 20 wealthiest people in the world.

A family that has accumulated enormous wealth can escape with surprisingly low income levels, and therefore tax burdens.

In an extreme example, Warren Buffett owns enough stock in Berkshire Hathaway to put his estimated net worth at $84 billion, but he pays himself $100,000 a year to be its chief executive. Even in years when his wealth rises by billions, he must pay tax only on his comparatively modest income and on the gains from shares that he chooses to sell.

Ms. Warren and other advocates of a wealth tax argue that this accumulation of untaxed or lightly taxed wealth is a bad thing. They say that it enables the creation of democracy-distorting dynasties who accumulate political power, and that tax policy should be used to rein them in more than the current tax code does.

The Unrealistic Economics of the Green New Deal

Saving planet, creating jobs are noble ideas—but by combining them, Green New Deal exacts too high a cost

The Green New Deal that Democrats unveiled last week is actually two deals: one to combat global warming, another to create millions of well-paid jobs for targeted groups.

Individually, both goals have their merits. But by combining them, the Green New Deal promises to make climate mitigation both absurdly expensive and deeply partisan and is thus more likely to set back than advance the climate cause.

The premise behind the Green New Deal is right. While the world may not spontaneously combust in 10 years, global carbon-dioxide emissions need to start dropping soon, by a lot, to keep temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius from 1800s levels, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Increases beyond that raise the probability of extreme weather, deadly heat and rising sea levels.

Because the private market has no incentive to reduce carbon emissions, government intervention is necessary. But not all interventions are created equal, and the Green New Deal’s seem engineered to be as expensive as possible.

Consider its goal of massive public investment to achieve 100% renewable energy in as little as 10 years. Kevin Book, head of research at ClearView Energy Partners, a research firm, estimates replacing the 83% of current U.S. generation that is not renewable with solar photovoltaic, wind and biomass would cost $2.9 trillion—nearly a full year’s tax revenue.

This excludes any cost for interest, operations, maintenance, new transmission lines or compensation to private investors for writing off natural-gas and coal plants with plenty of useful life left. It assumes cheap battery storage that doesn’t yet exist. Even so, this works out to $83 to avoid one metric ton of carbon dioxide.

The Green New Deal’s plan to upgrade every building in the U.S. to “maximum energy efficiency” is even more questionable. A study by Meredith Fowlie, Michael Greenstone and Catherine Wolfram in the Quarterly Journal of Economics found the federal government paid an average of $4,585 each to weatherize homes in Michigan. Extrapolate that to 95 million homes nationwide, and the bill tops $400 billion. The cost of avoided carbon dioxide: up to $285 per ton.

To understand how high $83 to $285 per ton of carbon dioxide is, consider that Barack Obama’s economists put the economic harm of a ton of CO 2 at $50. Or that you can pay a power producer
just

  • $6 to reduce emissions by one ton in New England,
  • $15 in California, and
  • $25 in the European Union,

based on emission permit prices in those jurisdictions, notes Mr. Greenstone, an economist at the University of Chicago.

Yet in the Green New Deal, trillion-dollar price tags are a feature, not a bug. That is because its mission is to create “millions of good, high-wage jobs” in “front-line and vulnerable communities.” The higher the price tag, the more jobs it creates. How to pay for it? Its Democratic sponsors would raise taxes on the rich and borrow the rest, including from the Federal Reserve, just as the U.S. did during World War II, dramatically boosting output and employment.

But in 1941, the U.S. had plenty of unused resources to mobilize: just 28% of prime-aged women had jobs. By 1945, 35% did and today, 74% do. (The data aren’t strictly comparable due to changing definitions.) The war effort still spurred intensive inflation pressure, contained only with wage and price controls. The U.S. is now close to full employment and its debts are far higher. Even in today’s world of low inflation and low interest rates, the scale of deficit spending the Green New Deal implies would likely push both higher.

Republicans and business groups have long fought even modest costs to mitigate climate change. Jacking up the price to finance left-wing Democratic priorities will only intensify their opposition. Indeed, Republicans and President Trump are itching to run against the Green New Deal. This guarantees inaction on climate unless Democrats win the White House, House of Representatives and 60 Senate seats.

What the U.S. needs is the Green New Deal’s sense of urgency combined with market mechanisms that incentivize carbon reduction at the lowest price, such as a carbon tax, carbon credits or tradable emission permits. This will also spur innovation that other countries can adopt to tackle their own emissions, which will be 88% of the global total by 2040.

Germany’s experience is illustrative. In 2000 it began targeting subsidies to renewable power and by 2017, renewables’ share of power consumption had risen fivefold to 38%. Because renewable generation was initially so small, the subsidies weren’t that burdensome, says Michael Pahle of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. The priority, he says, was spurring innovation to drive down costs. But, he says, as renewables became much larger, cost became much more worrisome.

In 2015 Germany introduced reverse auctions, in which producers bid to supply energy at the lowest possible subsidy. By attracting the lowest-cost supply, this has driven solar photovoltaic prices down by half. Some bids have required no subsidy at all.

Even so, because Germany is phasing out nuclear power and hasn’t targeted transport, industry and agriculture emissions, it is behind on its emissions reductions. This underlines the need for an economywide carbon price, Mr. Pahle says. That is a lesson Americans should learn now, not after they’ve spent trillions on a Green New Deal.

Historian says billionaires should stop talking philanthropy, start talking taxes

Historian and author Rutger Bregman made waves at the World Economic Forum in Davos when he told billionaires in attendance that large marginal tax rates, like those suggested by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), are better for the public good than philanthropy. Bregman joined CBSN to discuss how tax policy could be used to reduce inequality.