Their response is disingenuous. They focus most of their fire on what they label as our revenue estimate: that the proposed wealth tax would raise $25 billion annually, rather than the $187 billion they estimate. In reality, we are explicit that $25 billion is a rough back-of-the-envelope number and state that “We would be surprised if the $25-billion-a-year figure we suggest was not a significant underestimate of the revenue potential of a 2 percent wealth tax.” The purpose of our piece was not to provide an alternative revenue estimate for the wealth tax but to call into question the naively high estimate provided by Saez and Zucman.
.. As we explain at some length in our piece, naive estimation of the kind offered by Saez and Zucman tends to be way optimistic relative to scorekeeping by government experts. This point is well illustrated by the difference between academic and government estimates of taxing carried interest as ordinary income or of the value-added tax. Nothing in Saez and Zucman’s response suggests they are immune from this problem.
They attempt a broad allowance for tax avoidance, assuming the rich would successfully shelter at most 15 percent of their wealth from taxation. They base this guess on four academic studies that consider the international experience of wealth taxation, which find that a 1 percent wealth tax reduces reported wealth by 0.5 and 35 percent, which they simply average to 15 percent. But this strikes us as too low.
First, Saez and Zucman’s interpretation of the international experience differs from ours. They rely on estimates suggesting that a 1 percent wealth tax in Denmark and Sweden results in evasion of less than 1 percent (which makes their 15 percent estimate look huge). But in both countries, wealth taxation proved so easy to avoid and so difficult to administer that these taxes were repealed. In fact, of the 12 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that had wealth taxes in 1990, only three still have them today.
Second, the estate tax is informative on the potential magnitude of wealth tax evasion. Let’s consider Saez and Zucman’s estimated tax base for people with wealth greater than $50 million: about $9.3 trillion in 2019. If we were to apply the current 40 percent estate tax to this figure — assuming 2 percent of those families will experience a death this year (a conservative estimate) — we would expect that tax to generate about $75 billion this year. And if we apply the effective estate tax to that figure (accounting for charitable contributions and spousal bequests), it would raise $25 billion this year. In reality, the estate tax will raise about $10 billion from estates of more than $50 million this year. In other words, it seems plausible that tax avoidance is closer to 60 percent.
It is worth noting that estimating the tax base for those worth more than $50 million in itself is a difficult task — let alone estimating the revenue that taxing these households can raise. Different approaches to measuring top wealth can paint very different pictures. And the numbers reported in the Forbes 400, which Saez and Zucman rely on repeatedly in their rejoinder, are thought of by many as dubious.
This isn’t to say that our method should be viewed as definitive, but it does suggest the Saez and Zucman estimation is likely too high. As an illustration of the crudity of their analysis: They neglect to contend with behavioral responses that would inevitably follow a 2 percent tax on a small group of wealth holders. For example, there would be a significant incentive to accelerate charitable giving, which would decrease the wealth tax base. It seems important to account for the fact that the wealthy (and their tax planners) will inevitably be motivated to limit tax liability.
Saez and Zucman are at pains to suggest that their proposal is for a ramped-up Internal Revenue Service that is much more serious about collections than the current estate tax. We share their view that more could be done to collect estate tax revenue (and tax revenue more generally).
And we certainly do not start from “the premise that the rich cannot be taxed,” as Saez and Zucman allege. Instead, we share their objective that it is imperative to raise more tax revenue from those at the very top, and we propose a variety of progressive reforms to this end.
However, government budget scorekeepers properly score proposals in the form in which they would likely be enacted, not on the basis of the aspirations of their academic authors. So, we stand by our position — which will possibly be tested someday — that official scorekeepers would be very unlikely to validate the Saez-Zucman estimate of Warren’s proposed wealth tax, and that the gap would likely be substantial.
“Since the early 90s, the vast majority of Americans have been in favor of higher taxes for the rich… these are mainstream ideas and positions, but if you watch Fox News it seems like it’s a crazy, lunatic idea,” says @rcbregman.“Donald Trump, who doesn’t want to show his own tax returns, and who knows how many billions he has hidden away in the Cayman Islands… he was brought into power by this propaganda channel, Fox News,” says @rcbregman.“It’s a very American idea…. If you want to make capitalism work, you got to ensure competition. If companies become too big, like it’s clearly the case with Amazon right now, you break them up, that’s what you do if you have a proper capitalist economy,” says @rcbregman.
Apple has become the poster child for corporate tax avoidance, with its legal claim that a few hundred people working in Ireland were the real source of its profits, and then striking a deal with that country’s government that resulted in its paying a tax amounting to .005% of its profit. Apple, Google, Starbucks, and companies like them all claim to be socially responsible, but the first element of social responsibility should be paying your fair share of tax. If everyone avoided and evaded taxes like these companies, society could not function, much less make the public investments that led to the Internet, on which Apple and Google depend.
.. Transfer pricing relies on the well-accepted principle that taxes should reflect where an economic activity occurs. But how is that determined? In a globalized economy, products move repeatedly across borders, typically in an unfinished state: a shirt without buttons, a car without a transmission, a wafer without a chip. The transfer price system assumes that we can establish arms-length values for each stage of production, and thereby assess the value added within a country. But we can’t.
The growing role of intellectual property and intangibles makes matters even worse, because ownership claims can easily be moved around the world. That’s why the United States long ago abandoned using the transfer price system within the US, in favor of a formula that attributes companies’ total profits to each state in proportion to the share of sales, employment, and capital there. We need to move toward such a system at the global level.
How that is actually done, however, makes a great deal of difference. If the formula is based largely on final sales, which occur disproportionately in developed countries, developing countries will be deprived of needed revenues, which will be increasingly missed as fiscal constraints diminish aid flows. Final sales may be appropriate for taxation of digital transactions, but not for manufacturing or other sectors, where it is vital to include employment as well.
Some worry that including employment might exacerbate tax competition, as governments seek to encourage multinationals to create jobs in their jurisdictions. The appropriate response to this concern is to impose a global minimum corporate-income tax. The US and the European Union could – and should – do this on their own. If they did, others would follow, preventing a race in which only the multinationals win.
.. Politics matters: the multinationals’ objective is to gain support for reforms that continue the race to the bottom and maintain opportunities for tax avoidance. Governments in some advanced countries where these companies have significant political influence will support these efforts – even if doing so disadvantages the rest of the country. Other advanced countries, focusing on their own budgets, will simply see this as another opportunity to benefit at the expense of developing countries.
One of the biggest stars to come out of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week wasn’t a CEO or a head of state or a venture capitalist.