Late last year, the New York Times published an article revealing the disturbing but not surprising news that the nation has separate and unequal tax systems: one for the rich and powerful who have created a cottage “income defense industry” and another one for we regular Joes and JoAnnes.
The same day, the IRS released data showing that the average effective tax rate for the richest 400 Americans rose to 22.9 percent in 2013 (the latest year for which data are available), a substantial increase over the historically low effective rate of 16.7 percent that the group collectively paid the previous year. How this happened is no mystery. Tax changes enacted at the end of 2012 as part of the “fiscal cliff” deal as well as Affordable Care Act tax provisions that took effect in 2013 increased top income tax rates on both wages and capital gains.
Members of the exclusive, richest 400 club on average derive 70 percent or more of their income from capital gains. They also each enjoyed $100 million or more in income in 2013. The increase in their tax rate in 2013 is notable for several reasons. One, it is 6 percent more than the average from the previous year. Two, the rate, nonetheless, remains far below the nearly 30 percent average rate the group paid in the 1990s when the IRS first began publishing these data.
Average tax rates for the richest remain well below 1990s-era levels because even after the fiscal cliff deal, the top tax rate on capital gains is still only 23.8 percent, compared to the 28/29 percent capital gains tax rate in the early 1990s and the 39.6 percent top tax rate now applicable to wages. The way the IRS taxes income from wages versus income from wealth creates a disparity in the tax system that favors the wealthiest Americans and allows them to reduce their effective tax rates to well below the rates paid by less affluent Americans.
This is important information in the context of a presidential election in which all of the major Republican presidential contenders have proposed top-heavy tax cut proposals that would mostly benefit the wealthiest Americans while adding trillions of dollars to the national debt. On the Democratic side, none of the candidates have yet released comprehensive tax proposals. However, Hillary Clinton this week released a plan that, among other things, would close “certain” tax loopholes, impose a 4 percent surtax on households with income over $5 million, restore the estate tax to 2009 levels and increase the tax rate, a move the campaign says would raise $400 billion to $500 billion over a decade.
The next president’s policy on taxes will determine whether an elite sliver of the nation’s population will see their effective tax rates go back down to historically low levels or inch up and move the nation toward a more progressive federal tax system.
The sheer amount of wealth held by the top 400 means that tax increases on this group would have a measurable effect on the nation’s revenues and its ability to fund roads, bridges, education, public safety, public health, nutrition and other vital programs and services. Ending special tax breaks for capital gains would have an even better effect on tax fairness and our budget deficit.
And because the nation’s income continues to concentrate at the top—the richest 400 Americans, a tiny group, enjoyed 1.17 percent of nationwide AGI in 2013, more than twice as big as their 1992 share of nationwide income—failing to end tax breaks for these best-off Americans hurts public investments more and more each year. Obviously, the answer to the nation’s need to raise more revenue cannot solely be to tax this exclusive group more. Lawmakers and candidates, though, must stop peddling massive tax cuts--especially for the rich--as a policy panacea at a time when the nation isn't raising enough revenue to meet its priorities.
It’s welcome news that tax rates on the top 400 Americans have rebounded from their recent historic lows. But the recent reversal of the downward trend in tax rates for the richest Americans is only a first step toward undoing the regressive, top-heavy tax cuts of the past 20 years rather than a sea-level change in tax fairness.